By Stu Hackel
How effective will the NHL's proposed crackdown on diving be when (and if) the season starts? The last time it tried, opposition from some of the same general managers who called for a tougher standard stymied the effort. Now, perhaps, some changes in the potential punishment will lead to more acceptance.
As a result of the NHL's mini-summit earlier this week, both on-ice officials and the Hockey Operations Department will be watching more closely for players who try to deceive referees by embellishing fouls -- and also those who impede the progress of forecheckers. Improvement in both areas should help juice the game's flaccid offenses which produced Dead Puck Era-type goal scoring totals last season.
Much of the discussion involved playing rules and clarification, especially when it came to the standards of obstruction, as Colin Campbell told reporters on Wednesday.
The players, coaches and managers seconded Campbell's assessment in this video.
It's not the first time that the league has tried to crack down on hold-ups and diving, which are in some ways linked. You want a forechecker to have a clear path to the puck without being obstructed illegally, but you don't want him to take advantage of the situation by faking a foul. Most of the media attention coming out of the meeting, however, was on the renewed initiative against diving and other forms of embellishment, like players snapping their heads back in an attempt to draw a high-sticking penalty.
"The players and coaches were particularly adamant that we address it, make the calls, particularly the two and two call, two for the hook and two for the player trying to sell it," Campbell told Tim Campbell of The Winnipeg Free Press on Wednesday. "They're not for suspensions, but fines, letters, some form of embarrassment. The players were big on that."
In truth, the standard on both embellishment and interfering has slipped in recent seasons. Holding up forecheckers typifies the sort of obstruction tactics that characterized pre-lockout NHL play and the increased calling of interference penalties and all forms of obstruction starting in 2005-06 helped produce the exciting game that we welcomed back after the lost 2004-05 season. As part of that package of "new rules," the league placed a new emphasis on calling the embellishing penalty. Eventually it was codified as Rule 64 on Diving/Embellishment but at the outset it was merely an Unsportsmanlike Conduct minor. However, this new rule had sharp teeth. It called for Hockey Operations to review game videos and assess fines to players who dive or embellish a fall or a reaction, or feign injury in an attempt to draw penalties even if it wasn't called on the ice. The first such incident would result in a warning letter being sent to the player. The second brought a $1,000 fine. The third upped the fine to $2,000. The fourth dive would mean a one-game suspension. And any public complaints or derogatory comments about this new practice could also result in fines.
That was how the GMs wanted the league to enforce things, but it didn't really work out that way.
At the outset, Hockey Ops monitored each game and collected footage of potential dives, whether a penalty was called or not. On Mondays, the staff would gather and review the video and if they believed a player embellished a play, Campbell would phone that player's GM and let him know the player was being cited as a diver. In addition to the letters and fines, a notice with the names of divers would be sent to each club and to the on-ice officials to be posted in dressing rooms. Letting the teams and the refs know the identities of offenders would, theoretically, put a crimp in the practice.
The most important part of the system was everyone knew who the divers were, even the refs. Divers were put on notice that they were being watched. There was even to be acknowledgement in the media. Everyone was to know that these players had been fined. And they wouldn't get much leeway on the ice. To be fouled and get the call would necessitate a blatant penalty, like having their legs chopped out from under them.
The problems, however, started shortly thereafter. As Mike Halford of NBC.com's Pro Hockey Talk recalls, "The 'diver’s list' became big news following the last lockout when, early in the 2005-06 season, then-Kings forward Sean Avery blasted Campbell after being placed on the list — one that publicly identified him not just as a diver, but a repeat offender."
"How can a guy sitting in an office in New York determine if you dived or not by watching a tape?" Avery told Chris Foster of The Los Angeles Times that November. "They don't know if you had a bad ankle or a torn bursa sac or something. I can't even tell you what play they are even talking about. They don't have to tell you a play, just what game they are looking at....No question that this is a way to do something to me. It has nothing to do with diving. How can Colin Campbell, or whoever it is, sit at a desk and make that call?"
That outburst cost Unsavory Avery an extra grand in addition to his diving fine. But the atmosphere around the rule was soured.
Another problem was that escalating punishments led to suspensions -- and, as we all know, GMs don't even want their players suspended for head checks. They certainly don't want them banned for diving. Consequently, some GMs vehemently argued and complained to Campbell when he made that phone call. These were the same guys who had called for the rule, who had said they'd support the league office in enforcing it and pledged they'd offer no resistance.
Lacking the expected support from managers, Hockey Operations eventually abandoned the system. It's still in the rule book, however, but it was no longer enforced.
At the mini-summit, the coaches, managers and players rededicated themselves to the rule and to exposing the culprits with a list that everyone can see. They'll dispense with the suspensions, however. "They want to get [the list] out there," Campbell told reporters. "They want the player to be caught, whether it's on the ice by the referee or by us on video. They are all tired of diving. The object is to make them stop eventually and, by doing that, they can get it out there around the League, embarrass them. The referees will know it, too, so the divers don't get the benefit of the doubt.”
Diving is one of those areas in which two of hockey's traditions clash. On one hand is the belief that there is virtue in being honorable, an "honest hockey player," whose respect for the game means he will fight through checks and match his skill and strength against a checker while he rushes the puck. Hockey fans regularly chide soccer enthusiasts over that game's ridiculous chronic diving and theatrics, which is not befitting the world's most popular sport. You frequently hear a hockey player scolded, "This isn't soccer" after an embellishment. That's the ideal, anyway, and a traditionalist like Don Cherry fumes when he sees it (although he has yet to master the traditional task of correct pronunciation, especially when it comes to identifying Dan Carcillo).
On the other hand is the competitive urge to win at all costs, something that is equally prized alongside respect for the game, a credo that goes so far as to claim, "If you ain't cheating, you ain't trying." So players will try to fake a foul in hopes of getting a penalty called, and they've gotten pretty good at it.
There's a long history of diving in the NHL, and the Flyers Hall of Fame winger Bill Barber was a pioneer of it.
In Barber's day, the referees just stopped giving him the benefit of the doubt once they caught on to his deception, but it took a while. The fact that some NHL referees attended the meeting in Toronto should make the learning curve easier this time. "The players' feedback was real good," ref Wes McCauley said. "I thought there was a real good dialogue where they kind of let us in on some of the things that they use or feel they use as tactics to try not to get called on their penalties. So I thought they were honest and gave us a couple of trends or tricks to the trade, so to speak."
But McCauley declined to divulge some examples to reporters. "I don't want to put them under the bus," he laughed.
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