All the way back in mid-August, when the days were still hot and the lockout no more than a gleam in Jeremy Jacobs’ presumably cold, dead eyes, the NHL had a rules summit. This was in lieu of the standard R&D camp that the League traditionally has in the late summer, for rather than experimenting with new regulations, Colin Campbell decided it was more important to have a conversation about the rules already on the books, specifically the standard of enforcement of those rules. Players and GMs had been complaining to him, and if nothing else, he wanted to give them the opportunity for a mass airing of grievances.
Most of the complaints centered on two issues: the increase in diving and the decrease in obstruction/interference penalties. While many of the articles discussing the rules summit described these two problems as unrelated issues that just happened to have come up in the same summer, there are good reasons to believe that the phenomena are deeply connected and possibly even interdependent. Since the last lockout, the NHL has gone through a cycle of tightening and relaxing of officiating standards, and such cycles create powerful incentives for embellishment.
Hockey has a deep, structural reffing problem. This isn’t a complaint about refs personally; it’s not a human fault. It goes all the way back to the beginning of the game and all the way down to its bones. At its root is this: hockey penalties are not absolute. Oh, sure, a few of them are. Draw blood with a high stick and you’re going to get those four minutes nearly every time. Firing the puck over the glass is never going to slide, and God help you if your stick is measured and found wanting. But the vast majority of the common penalties are judged on a sliding scale of badness. Technically, by the letter of the law, a ref could call perhaps fifty penalties a game. Every battle in front of the net contains three or four potential cross-checking, roughing, or interference calls, all the open-ice hits achieved ‘by means of distance travelled’ could be considered charging, and there are still plenty of little holds along the boards, little slashes in foot races. That these things are not called is not because they’re not against the rules, but because we have a mental standard for how badly a rule needs to be violated before we consider it worthy of stopping play.
The difference between penalty and non-penalty is tiny, and it moves around. It varies, surely, from ref to ref, but beyond that it varies from season to season, particularly where restraining and interference penalties are concerned. Hockey is fundamentally a defensive game. Coaches are always looking for ways to slow it down, and holding, hooking, tripping, and generally tying up your opponents have always been the best ways to do that. In contrast, the NHL wants hockey to be fast, and is therefore constantly trying to crack-down on obstruction. It’s one of many ongoing coaches vs. league officials battles.
One such spasm of anti-obstruction fervor came in the aftermath of the last lockout, as we all know, but that was hardly the first time. As far back as sixty years ago, the NHL was trying to find a way to curb restraining fouls. Quoth head referee Carl Voss, in 1951:
“Our main idea is to get rid of that wrestling and grappling type of play which shows up in the game and spoils it as a fast, clean attraction for the fans. The way it has been, the better players have been so mauled and grabbed by their checkers that they haven’t been able to play the fast, wide-open hockey game they are capable of– and that the fans want to see. Key men like Richard, Howe, the Bentleys, LaPrade, are usually[sic] the threat of injury unless these illegal tactics can be halted. Mediocre players who have been sent out to check their man but lacked the speed and skill to stop him fairly are usually the worst offenders. To stop a breakaway on goal, they’ll resort to grabbing their man by the sweater, slashing his ribs or ankles, doing anything to throw him off balance or make him lose control of the puck. That way, they drag the stars down to their own level of play and the game suffers as a result. By stopping that sort of thing, I think we can produce a faster and more attractive type of hockey.”*
What Voss found in the wake of his initiative, however, was the same thing that the post-lockout NHL has found, which is that calling more penalties doesn’t speed up the game. A hold or a hook slows down a player, true, but nothing makes the whole game boring like constant stoppages. Frequent penalties make periods drag and upset the fans’ sense of excitement and drama. Worse yet, a tough officiating standard makes the refs themselves more obtrusive and contributes to a sense among both spectators and GMs that the officials are deciding the game rather than the players. Nothing provokes a sense of injustice so intensely as the feeling that an outcome was the result of a chintzy call, and you better believe that Brendan Shanahan and Colin Campbell hear about that sense of injustice every damn time it comes up.
And so such crack-downs eventually, and usually quickly, relax. The refs call games more tightly for a while, but the social, commercial, and cultural forces of the game are against them. They move slowly away from the idea of calling to a standard and back to the more common tradition of calling in order to ‘control’ a game, which means using penalties more to manage emotions and create a sense of fairness rather than to punish particular categories of actions. From 2005-06 to 2011-12, average penalties per game fell from 11.7 to 7. It was this dramatic and demonstrable decrease in penalties that provoked some teams to complain to the NHL that the standard had fallen. While Campbell and some GMs were quoted as believing that penalties had fallen off because players had simply learned the new standard, other coaches believed quite firmly that the change was more in the referees than the players.
Either way, however, it is easy to see how such a decline in penalties provokes diving. A power play is a major opportunity in hockey and getting one for one’s team confers a major scoring advantage. An officiating surge, such as what happened in 2005-6, gives everyone more power play opportunities on grounds of weaker offenses. Players and coaches become accustomed to this standard, not necessarily to the new strictness of the penalty but simply to the number of penalties per game.
But then the standard starts to slip or the players start to wise up, and the number of penalties falls, and the number of power play advantages for the taking falls with it. However, since the standard is still supposed to be ostensibly strict, the logic emerges: if you make the penalty more visible, more dramatic, then the ref is more likely to notice it and feel obligated to call it. A rise in embellishment corresponding with a fall in overall penalties is the natural result of players attempting to sustain the penalties per game rate that they felt was ‘normal’ in the inter-lockout period. Diving is a direct result of hockey’s inevitable grey areas of reffing, and especially of any cycle of tightening and relaxing of standards.
The diving penalty is an attempt to counteract this phenomenon, but it’s a hazy one. Except in a few egregious cases, the refs cannot see diving. They can see falling and head-snapping and stumbling, of course, but whether the movement is natural or exaggerated is impossible for them to know. Of all the penalties, the diving penalty is the absolute vaguest and least objective, and therefore makes a poor solution to a problem that has it’s roots in the vagueness and subjectiveness of other penalties. Refs, I suspect, will always be hesitant to use it, except against players with long-established reputations for embellishment.
Hence why hockey’s cultural prohibition against diving is so strong and so essential. Because power plays are an advantage, diving will always be strategically useful, and in the period immediately after a crackdown it will be especially useful. The only way to counterbalance it is the sense that those on your own side- your teammates, your coach, your fans- will respect you less if you do it. Some players will always do it anyway (there is a specific role on a team designated as a pest or an agitator, whose whole job is to do wrong things) but the majority of players don’t want to be that guy and the majority of teams don’t want more than one or two such guys on a roster. The single greatest reason for an NHL player not to dive is peer-inflicted shame for doing so.
The suggestion of posting a list of known divers in the dressing room seems shallow and even useless, but it reflects what the players know about the phenomenon: it is never going to be controlled effectively by the refs, with their ever-shifting standards and numerous blind spots. Whenever standards are tightened and then relaxed, whenever penalties per-game fall off, there is going to be an incentive to use embellishment to pressure the refs. Something so strategically useful needs to be checked by public embarrassment, if it is to be checked at all.
But is it still to be checked? Hockey is becoming ever more safety conscious, ever more sensitive, the game’s standards of ‘play through it’ are ever eroding, the rule book is ever swelling. The whole point of crack-downs and relents is to try to hold a kind of average long-term standard, but over the decades that average standard is pushing further and further towards less, and especially towards less restraining. The ethic of stoicism- of pushing through adversity, whatever its source, whatever its fairness- is on the way out, and the ethic of falling down is slowly coming in. For diving in hockey isn’t really about deliberately going down in drama and agony (except for Mike Ribeiro), it’s about how hard you try to stay on your feet. Persuading players not to dive is largely about persuading them to stay up and struggle through numerous tiny assaults for the sake of honor, but when there’s a tactical advantage- say, in the form of an extra two or three power plays per game- how many men can be expected to value honor over winning?
* The Hockey News, October 20, 1951, p. 1 & 8