Monday, June 13, 2011

Diving and Embellishing: A Fool's Lament

The Stanley Cup will be at the rink, ready to be delivered to the waiting hands of Henrik Sedin should the Vancouver Canucks finish off the Bruins Monday night in Boston. The Cup, a shining representation of the talent, commitment and heart evinced by NHL champions through the years would then belong to the ‘Nucks and their exceedingly skilled club. Unfortunately, this analyst will feel no admiration for these would-be champions. Their pinnacle accomplishment will be forever marred by their pathetic and contemptuous attitudes and actions. Even prima donnas around the world will ridicule the unbelievably pitiful manner with which these purported champions displayed their character on and off the ice in this Stanley Cup Postseason.

There are those who will scoff at my disdain for the Canucks and ask “My, what sour grapes are these?” However partisan my opinion sounds, I can only assure that it is not. Those who have heard my labored rants on-air recognize my contempt for diving, feigning injury and the entire filthy rainbow of “gamesmanship”. If the Bruins I have loved since I was a mite decided it was in their best interests to become the most successful American divers since Greg Louganis, I would reject them as readily as I reject the Canucks – please do not doubt that. Unfortunately, the spectre of “gamesmanship” hangs over hockey like the Sword of Damocles, and I cringe as the meager threads preventing what would be (to me) the doom of the game I love appear at risk of snapping.

Now, just because I am calling out the diving and faking in the potential champs, doesn’t mean I haven’t found it elsewhere… at this point it has become a nearly ubiquitous practice among some teams, and worming its way into the hearts of others. Earlier this postseason, as Boston fans will no doubt recall, there were several egregious examples of it during the series with Montreal, as the talented but ill-mannered P.K. Subban unleashed some of the most heinous flops since Spider-Man the musical. A simple Youtube search yielded excellent if atrocious results, with Mike Ribero’s infamous “Flailing Mary” moment in the ’04 playoffs leading the way. Even Hub of Hockey favorite Brad Marchand is visibly guilty with two obvious embellishments this postseason (both of which were called).

Why is diving so prevalent? First of all, it’s an illegal act that’s rarely punished in-game, and even more rarely the recipient of supplemental discipline. Simultaneously, these acts of “gamesmanship” – even if they aren’t fruitful in producing a penalty, provoke opponents to rough and occasionally illegal actions, thereby raising the inherent value in diving. Simultaneously, the defenders of embellishers claim that divers and their ilk are often provoked into their actions at the hands of opponents whose cheap and/or rough activities go unnoticed or are tacitly permitted by league officials. In any case, even if provoked, this sort of cowardly “gamesmanship” only serves to diminish the game and the toughness and physicality supposedly extolled by the NHL and hockey as a whole. Divers and embellishers may give their team a better chance to win, but their antics are slowly drawing the life out of the game.

How does the NHL deal with this? A majority of the time, the diving/embellishment is missed entirely and the play will go on or the “victim” of the dive will be penalized. Only a fraction of the dives get called, and a majority of these will result in “matching minors” and 4 on 4 hockey (which usually rewards one team over another), even though a solid majority of these incidents are little or no fault of the non-diving party. Especially rare is the unattached embellishment minor, a call I’m not sure I’ve seen more than once in years of watching professional hockey. What else comes of rampant diving? Supposedly (according to rules 64.1 and 64.3 of the NHL rulebook) the player who is judged by the NHL’s board of supplementary discipline to have embellished, is to receive a written warning for a first offense, a $1,000 fine for a second offense and a one-game suspension for a third in a single season. I cannot find one instance of a player being suspended for embellishing, and only one instance of a player being fined for it.

In any case, it’s not enough. Diving is too prevalent in today’s game. I’ll venture a guess that in this postseason, between ten and twenty potential diving/embellishment calls go without punishment. This evinces an obvious problem in policy. The punishments for diving need to be stiffer, without question. As my compatriot and fellow diving-hater, Bill Ladd suggests, an effective way to combat the issue in-game would be to assess a double-minor in the case of a diving penalty being called, even in the event of an obstruction call being assessed in the other direction. Simultaneously, the league disciplinarians need to come down much harder on the offenders much the same way they plan to continue cracking down on hits to the head. If harsher penalties aren’t enacted, we can only look forward to more and more diving as the lax discipline encourages more offenders to try to push the system’s limits.

Now, plenty of the Bruins’ detractors will suggest that the B’s chippy and rough antics invite diving as a response to illegal physical play. This may be true, yet the league has already begun to crack down on cheap hits, it only seems fair play that diving should come under the same intense scrutiny. Physicality has always been a part of the game, always factored significantly in the soul of hockey, and however we may look at the sport now, players have policed themselves throughout hockey’s history. What’s now considered “dirty” might very well have been considered tame and commonplace in hockey’s past. The league must find a middle path, to eliminate the most unnecessary and dirty activities in the modern game while simultaneously preserving the physicality and brutality that makes the game endlessly entertaining. Likewise, there’s never going to be a 100% effective method of eliminating embellishment from the game, but the current system is just not working.

I hate to play this card, perhaps the last bastion of this dedicated hockey appreciator though it seems like the lamenting whimper of someone whose cause is lost. I’m not trying to use this soap-box for the purpose of decrying and diminishing the (at this point) potential Vancouver victory. I simply desire to call-to-arms those who would fight to prevent hockey’s descent into the realm currently occupied by soccer and basketball where diving, faking and embellishments are so unquestionably omnipresent. We’re not there yet, but a Vancouver victory as Champions not only of the NHL, but of the embellishment and dive, could be the final blow heralding in an age where this “gamesmanship” will not be admonished, but coveted and commended. Should diving become so prevalent amongst hockey’s players that its seen as a nearly ubiquitous act around the League, this magnificent game will find itself less one fan, certainly.

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