Justin Bourne wrote a great post yesterday on why hockey players dive, which was refreshing to see from a former player. Diving and embellishment will always happen in hockey because referees aren’t perfect and will often ignore infractions unless a player goes down or embellishes. As Justin said, there’s often no reward for fighting through a hook, trip, or hold, so the next time the situation arise, you go down and, frequently, you get the positive reinforcement of a powerplay.
Embellishment seems to increase in the playoffs for two reason: first, the stakes are higher and players are willing to do whatever it takes to gain an advantage. Second, referees are more likely to stow their whistles in their pockets and “let the players decide” (which upsets me for reasons that will go into a different post), so they’re unlikely to make a call unless something blatant occurs, which basically requires a player to hit the ice or snap their head back.
It’s inevitable, of course, that when the issue of diving comes up, some hockey fans immediately complain that they’re concerned about hockey becoming like soccer. Sure enough, there were a couple comments on Justin’s post badmouthing the beautiful game.
Well, I watch, play, and officiate soccer and I’m here to tell you that you don’t have anything to worry about. Hockey will never have as much diving as soccer does. Also, diving isn’t as big a problem in soccer as you might have been led to believe.
It might be hard to believe that diving isn’t actually that big of a problem in soccer. After all, that seems to be all that most North American sports fans know about the game. And I’m definitely not saying that there isn’t a lot of diving in soccer: there definitely is and some of it is hilariously awful. It’s also not that big a problem, mainly because referees, for the most part, know what’s going on. Most of the times when a player takes a dive, he is either ignored by the referee and play continues, or if it’s a particularly egregious dive, he gets a yellow card.
Certain players are notorious for diving (Didier Drogba hit the turf every 5 minutes in Chelsea’s Champion’s League matches versus Barcelona), but for every player like him, there are dozens that don’t dive or embellish. Lionel Messi, the best player in the world, is renowned for never diving, even when he is being clutched, grabbed, hacked, tripped, and kicked. Just like in hockey, there are players who dive at the slightest provocation (Dustin Brown, Ryan Kesler, Sean Avery, etc.), most will embellish if they feel the need to draw the referee’s attention to a penalty, and some will never embellish or dive at all.
Justin’s line on diving was “I didn’t dive a lot when I played” and that he couldn’t claim to have never taken a dive. I can. When I play soccer, I simply can’t dive. I wish that I could dive or embellish, but I essentially have a mental block that prevents me from doing it. It would be beneficial if I could learn to break through that block, to be honest. But I do get accused of diving pretty frequently. Here’s the thing: it’s a lot harder to stay on your feet in soccer than you would think.
When you’re running at full tilt, it doesn’t take much to take you off your feet. I watched most of the last World Cup with a group of people who didn’t follow soccer at all. It was gratifying to have slow-motion, HD replays of all the fouls that they thought were blatant dives, as you could clearly see where a player got tripped, clipped, or pulled down. The vast majority of what they thought were dives were just fouls. When your foot or knee gets clipped even a little bit when you’re running and you can’t get it into position to support your weight, you’re going to fall.
I’m 5’10″ and weigh 160 lbs. I’m not a very big or strong guy, and since it took until the age of 16 to hit my growth spurt (8 inches in one year), I have always been small, which meant hockey was right out of the question from a young age. In soccer, I play sweeper or stopper (aka. center defence), arguably the most physical position on the field. As a result, when I’m fouled, I tend to go down. I can’t really help it.
I also have a recurring issue with leg cramps that will, from out of nowhere, cause shooting pain in my calves as they seize up, resulting in me collapsing to the ground in severe pain. I’ve gotten more than a few looks of disdain from other players thinking I’m trying to draw a penalty call, but I’m not diving. My body is just a mess sometimes.
A lot of what is called embellishment in hockey is along the same lines, though I’m betting hockey players have better physiotherapists: sometimes it’s hard to avoid going down and sometimes a player can be in pain without an obvious cause. I was baffled during the Canucks/Kings series at some of the things that colour commentator Craig Simpson called embellishment. On one play, Henrik Sedin got can-openered: the Kings defender put his stick between Henrik’s legs and twisted. It would have been almost impossible for Henrik to stay on his feet, but Simpson immediately labelled it embellishment.
I think the same is often true when players snap their heads back after being high-sticked. On some occasions, it’s definitely embellishment, but most of the time it’s a perfectly natural reaction to being whacked in the face with a hockey stick. Most people try to move their faces away from things that hit them.
But if anyone is truly worried about hockey becoming like soccer, here are some reasons why it’s just not going to happen.
In soccer, there are 11 players on the playing surface, which is massive in comparison to hockey. When a player takes a dive in either sport, he is effectively taking himself out of the play in hopes of getting a call, but there is the risk of not getting the call. Kesler’s now infamous “tumbleweed” dive led to a clean 3-on-2 the other way in a tied playoff game in the third period. He got lucky in that the Kings didn’t realize it in time to take advantage.
It’s completely different in soccer: if a player dives and takes himself out of the play, there are 10 other players on the field and most plays take a long time to develop. The worst divers in soccer are invariably forwards, because it’s not going to cost the team if they go down, while you rarely see a defender dive because it’s far too risky. Diving in hockey will never be as prevalent as it is in soccer because of that risk. You can’t afford to take yourself out of the play in hockey because it could easily lead to an odd-man rush the other way if there is no penalty call
Soccer players are also lambasted for staying on the ground longer than necessary, even after a legitimate foul. Some people worry about hockey players feigning an injury in hopes of getting a penalty call, but I don’t think this will happen too much either. In soccer, teams have a limited number of substitutions, while teams substitute constantly in hockey. If a hockey player has a strain, a stinger, or some other temporary pain, he can go to the bench and get it taken care of by a trainer, perhaps missing a shift.
A soccer player, on the other hand, doesn’t have that luxury. If he is hurt, he has to go to ground. As a referee, I tell players that if they are injured, they should at minimum go down on one knee so that I am aware and can stop play while they get whatever treatment is necessary. As a player, I’ve been hacked, kicked, and stepped on and it hurts like hell at first. But then adrenaline kicks in and I can continue just fine. I might end up with a massive bruise on my calf or a blackened toe, but I continue playing.
A couple weeks ago, I got a knee in my hip while playing soccer, which caused a massive amount of pain that lasted for about 20 seconds. If it happened while playing hockey, I would have coasted to the bench. But since it happened in soccer, I stayed on the ground once the penalty was called. After the pain subsided, I got up and continued playing the rest of the match. I woke up in agony the next morning and my hip was in pain for the next 10 days. Just because I was able to continue playing doesn’t mean I was faking my injury: I stayed on the ground because that is what you have to do in soccer. If I was playing hockey and no penalty was called, I would have struggled to my feet and either continued to the best of my ability or gone to the bench.
Finally, one of the main causes of embellishment in soccer is that scoring chances are relatively rare, especially compared to hockey. The average number of shots per game for a team in the 4 biggest leagues in the world during the 2010-11 season was 13. To clarify, that’s shots attempted. The average number of shots on target falls to just 5.2. The fewest shots on goal in the NHL this season was 5 times that: the Minnesota Wild averaged 26.5 shots per game.
With so few shots on target, when one of those scoring opportunities slips away, either by mishandling the ball or having it stripped away by a defender, the temptation to make up for the loss of that precious opportunity by taking a dive is enormous. This is particularly true if you’re in the penalty box, where a foul results in a penalty kick: an unobstructed shot on goal from 12 yards out, where the keeper has to stay on the goal line prior to the shot. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of these opportunities are converted and can make all the difference in a generally low-scoring sport like soccer.
In hockey, however, the situation is different. A lost scoring chance in hockey is significantly less important, because you’ll likely get another chance a couple shifts later, if not on the same shift. Why bother diving and embellishing when the puck is still available to be won back for another scoring chance. A 2-minute powerplay is beneficial, certainly, but not to the extent of a penalty kick in soccer. The risk of not getting the call and taking yourself out of the play is not always worth the potential benefit of a powerplay.
I have one last thing to say and it’s a message to all hockey players reading this: you are all terrible at diving. Seriously, you ought to be ashamed of yourselves. Amateurs.