NHL hockey diminishes itself with games like last night’s between the Caps and Oilers. What should have been a highly fast-paced, highly entertaining matchup between a contender today and one that fast appears to be being assembled for the near tomorrow devolved into a whistle-fest parade of rhythm-robbing minor penalties, devaluing the evening for paying patrons and a television audience. And this is not a new problem for the league.
Last night’s was a game with justifiable buildup: the Caps were off to a best-ever 7-0 start, the young and rebuilding Oilers had acquitted themselves quite well early on in the new season, and their Lottery Line of Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was evoking the high-end forward skill showcased by the Capitals in recent years. Including a few injured players who did not dress, last night’s game featured two organizations in possession of fully 20 first-round draft choices, including four no. 1 overall selections.
The Capitals entered play last night as the league’s least penalized team. Before 41 minutes had been played last night, the Caps had been whistled for an astounding nine minor penalties. Fully one-quarter of the penalties the Caps have earned through eight games this season were accrued last night. It’s surreal that the Caps outshot the Oilers 35-19 while having to spend so much of the evening on the penalty kill. And it was remarkably commendable that the visitors attacked the Edmonton zone with as much fury as they did in the evening’s final frame; little in hockey is as physically taxing as killing penalties.
Edmontonians today are no doubt thrilled that their young and upcoming club prevailed 2-1 in the game, but I wonder how many of the $100-plus-paying patrons last night genuinely enjoyed watching so much special teams play. Hockey, most especially when it’s contested on a heavenly sheet of ice as found in Edmonton, is meant to be played 5-on-5. Understand: I’m not scapegoating Dan O’Halloran and Stephane Auger for last night’s outcome. My concern is much larger than the game’s outcome. The argument here isn’t that a game’s referees should put the whistle away every time two highly skilled teams face off; it’s that on some level there needs to be recognition at the very top of the league how damaging a game like last’s is when considered from a broad marketing perspective. Last night’s was a game that rightly ought to have been showcased as a novel NHL event. The two teams don’t meet very often (the Caps won’t face Edmonton again this season), they possess a conspicuous abundance of world-class skill, and they met on the type of ice sheet that highlights hockey’s greatest skills.
Virtually uninterrupted killing penalty robs teams of their natural line combinations; it reduces the minutes for first- and second-liners. It grinds a game down into rink-long puck dumpings and four-man boxes. End-to-end rushes are replaced by keep-away. Hockey’s most natural sounds — churning steel driven into an ice sheet during end-to-end rushes, the thwack of a perfectly passed puck cross-ice smacking a teammate’s blade — are replaced by . . . whistles, and the silence of one team standing around, trying to kill clock. An awful lot of clock had to be killed last night. What a damned shame.
Some of it, of course, is inevitable. When an entire night, however, is dominated by interruptions and extra-man play, we’ve been robbed.
Bruce Boudreau acknowledged that the referees were absolutely within their right to whistle incessant halts in the action as they did.
“In the rulebook they’re penalties,” the frustrated-looking head coach told media in the postgame. “Some [refs] call it, some don’t.”
And that’s the essence of this problem.
Newcomer fans to our game often find it both inexplicably perplexing and infuriating to have such dramatic enforcement variance from game to game. This isn’t a matter of high or low strike zone variance among baseball umpires; this is about altering the advertised appeal of two appealing teams, of eviscerating what should be a fast-paced game’s flow, with whistle-happy officiating. It is not in the best interest of our sport.
What I have found to be the most consistent source of confusion among sports fans brand new to our sport, trying to make sense of its rules and rituals in its fast proceedings, is the wide discrepancy of enforcement ethos from night to night, referee to referee, period to period . . . shift to shift. From Ed Frankovic’s WNST recap of last night: “Things started to get crazy towards the end of period one when referees Dan O’Halloran and Stephane Auger decided they were going to be the show [emphasis OFB's] and proceeded to call a dive on Matt Hendricks, who does not have a reputation for doing that, and then a shaky stick infraction on Hamrlik late in the period.”
Ed nailed it. Last night O’Halloran and Auger were the show, they were to focal point of the entertainment. Want to pay three figures to watch that?
“When the Caps play 5 on 5 hockey they are the best team in the league,” Frankovic wrote of last, “but tonight the guys in the striped shirts didn’t want to see that.” And that’s a big problem.