When Wayne Gretzky was in the midst of breaking every scoring record known to man while playing for the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s, there was a longstanding joke that whenever someone scored a goal in the province of Alberta, Gretzky would be credited with an assist.
Ah yes, the bogus assist, better known as the phantom assist or the bull---- assist, has been with us for as long as the NHL has existed. In fact, there was a brief time back in the 1930s when three assists could potentially be awarded for every goal.
The phantom assist occurs hundreds of times a season and few people get too worked up about it, but it did cause a stir last week when Mats Sundin passed Darryl Sittler as the Toronto Maple Leafs all-time franchise leader in points.
(By the way, there are only 13 teams that have an all-time leading scorer with fewer points than the Leafs do and only three of them Â– the Calgary Flames, New Jersey Devils and Vancouver Canucks Â– existed before 1992-93. That means all of the league's Original 6 and Original 12 have surpassed the Leafs in this category. Just thought you might like to know.)
Anyway, with the Leafs leading 2-1 in what would become an 8-1 laugher over the New York Islanders, Sundin was credited with an assist on a goal by Tomas Kaberle to give him the record. A sheepish Sundin could be seen speaking with linemate Jason Blake before reluctantly acknowledging the standing ovation from the crowd.
Only one problem. Sundin had absolutely nothing to do with the goal being scored and he knew it. The play developed when Kaberle blocked a Miroslav Satan shot, then fed it up to Blake, who got it back to Kaberle, who scored. But because Sundin was in the vicinity of the goal, he ended up with an assist.
The scoring play was changed after a between-periods review and Sundin saved the day by scoring a goal to give him the No. 1 perch in both all-time goals and points for the Leafs.
But it all created what could have potentially been an embarrassing situation. Imagine if Sundin had not scored the rest of the night. The story the next day would not have been that Sundin broke the record, but that the record was tainted by a phantom assist that Sundin never deserved to receive.
It underlines the problem that there are just too many phantom assists awarded in the NHL. How many times have we seen a player who just happens to be around the net credited with an assist despite the fact that he didn't touch the puck? You can rest assured that Sundin's assist would have stood if not for the awkward questions it would have created.
In fact, despite all the video technology the league has at its disposal, it will not change a scoring play after the play unless it receives a request from one of the teams to review it. The referees and official scorers are almost always the arbiters of what constitutes an assist.
Of course, none of this would be an issue if the NHL treated assists as the second-class citizens they are. Goals and assists may be equal when you're trying to teach Little Johnny to be a responsible citizen and a good sport, but they shouldn't be given the same value in the best league in the world.
And in this way, the NBA does it far better than the NHL. In basketball, a player has to actually contribute to a scoring play to be credited with an assist. Although it's also highly subjective, the assist is generally awarded only to players who deserve them and there is only one awarded per scoring play.
But unlike the NHL, in the NBA, an assist isn't a big deal. It doesn't get a player more money in contract negotiations or more status as a star player the way it does in hockey. The big stats in basketball are points, rebounds and steals, followed by blocked shots and assists.
We're not advocating the assist fall that far down the food chain, but how about a system where an assist gets what it's actually worth? We say goals should count for a point and assists for a half a point. (Shameless plug here: In Campbellnomics, a statistic you'll find in THN that charts only important goals, assists are worth half a point.)
The NHL, of course, will never do this because it would compromise scoring records that have been established throughout history. And hey, they have a point there, but it's probably not as drastic as you'd think. Here's how the top 10 scorers of all time would look under the one point for goal and half point for assist system. (Actual rankings are in parentheses.)
1. Wayne Gretzky (1)
2. Gordie Howe (3)
3. Mark Messier (2)
4. Marcel Dionne (5)
5. Steve Yzerman (6)
6. Mario Lemieux (7)
7. Ron Francis (4)
8. Phil Esposito (8)
9. Joe Sakic (9)
10. Jaromir Jagr (11)
Sundin, coincidentally, would have surpassed Sittler's franchise record on precisely the same goal.
Ken Campbell's Cuts appears regularly only on The Hockey News.com. Want to get the inside edge from Ken himself? You can reach him at email@example.com.
One of THN's senior writers, Ken Campbell gives you insight and opinion on the world of hockey like no one else. Subscribe to The Hockey News to get Ken's expertise delivered to you every issue.