Hockey's unsportsmanlike conduct hurts the game

How the NHL could eliminate diving in one season.
Photo: Senators and Bruins Photo: Dan4th Nicholas

SANTA CRUZ, July 12, 2013 — Sports may well be the toy department of life, but that does not stop people from living and dying with certain teams. Folks are apt to be excessively passionate about the game and clubs they love but at the end of the day it is only a game. What people will not abide, however, is behavior which cheapens the sport.

Not all sports are created equal, however.

Take soccer (or football if you happen to live across the pond), a brilliant game of speed and skill, cunning and strategy. It is the most popular sport on the planet and yet, if a hockey fan watches a soccer game for the first time, he will undoubtedly be appalled.

Soccer suffers from a culture of flopping. Players tumble to the pitch, grabbing their knees, ankles or head as they grimace in agony. Meanwhile, the slow motion television replay will show that they were never touched by an opponent. It is so commonplace in soccer (admittedly some leagues or teams more than others) that nobody notices anymore.

Conversely, Boston Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron played game six of the Stanley Cup finals with torn cartilage, a separated shoulder, a broken rib, and a punctured lung. He did not make a big deal about it and the extent of his injuries was only disclosed after the series ended.  

The National Hockey League (NHL) has a diving problem. It has been subtle, creeping slowly into the league over a period of decades, but it is now a permanent fixture in most NHL games. If the league doesn’t want to end up like soccer, there are steps it can take to end the madness before it becomes routine.

Currently, if a player hooks, holds or trips another player and the aggrieved party embellishes with a flop or a dive, the referee will call two penalties: a hook, hold or trip on the first player and unsportsmanlike conduct on the flopper. In some ways it is logical, two transgressions, two penalties.  

The problem is that, by matching the minor penalties, the referees are essentially remunerating the diver. By rewarding behavior that denigrates the competitive integrity of the game, officials are unintentionally perpetuating it.  

If the NHL wants to eliminate diving it must stop rewarding it. If referees were given the directive to call only the dive on these plays it could stop after one season. If on-ice officials were consistent with the call, players would be forced to adjust. Nobody would want to put their team shorthanded by flopping around on the ice or jumping into the air at the first indication of illegal contact. It would be embarrassing, an affront to the toughness inherent in the game.

If one player hooks, holds or trips another player and that player continues to play, fighting through the penalty, the obstruction will be called and the aggrieved player’s team will find themselves on the power play, as they should be.  

Hockey, like soccer is just a game, and there are far greater problems in the world than embellishment of penalties. Still, the fact remains that hockey cannot end up like soccer. The fans will not tolerate it and, since the players appear unwilling to police it themselves, the league must intercede.  

If the NHL got proactive and issued the directive to its referees, it could eliminate diving in one season.

Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.

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Russ Rankin

Raised in the decidedly non-traditional hockey region of Santa Cruz, California, Russ Rankin fell in love with the game as a kid while watching the "Miracle On Ice" 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. He began playing recreationally as an adult when the Sharks joined the NHL in nearby San Jose and regularly attends Sharks home games. His favorite NHL team is the New Jersey Devils, which he has been following since the 1987-88 season. In 2007, with more and more U.S. born players (particularly from California) making an impact in the WHL, Rankin pursued his passion and knowledge of the game into a job scouting California for WHL clubs. He can be seen at rinks all over the state searching for the next great crop of players.

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