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Hard truth: the unpenalized fouling of Connor McDavid is never going to stop

Edmonton Journal logo Edmonton Journal 4 days ago David Staples, Edmonton Journal
Edmonton Oilers Connor McDavid (97) gets tripped up by New York Islanders Adam Pelech (3) during NHL action at Rogers Place in Edmonton, February 21, 2019. © Ed Kaiser Edmonton Oilers Connor McDavid (97) gets tripped up by New York Islanders Adam Pelech (3) during NHL action at Rogers Place in Edmonton, February 21, 2019.

NHL  too traditional a league to make changes to stop constant uncalled offences against top players

It’s happening again.

It happens every year.

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And, almost certainly, it’s going to happen every year for as long as Connor McDavid plays.

Yes, we’re at that point in the season where fans of the Edmonton Oilers are sick to death at the amount of uncalled and unpenalized grabbing, slashing, hooking and holding of McDavid.

The issue came to a head after Wednesday night’s game between the Oilers and the St. Louis Blues, which saw the Blues regularly fouling both McDavid and his linemate Leon Draisaitl and getting away with it. A few plays, in particular, stood out, with Blues defenceman Vince Dunn grabbing McDavid’s arm and with St. Louis forward Ryan O’Reilly repeatedly slashing at McDavid as he tried to steak up the ice to join an attacking play late in the match.

The fouls were so blatant this time around that even stalwart and level-headed NHL broadcasters like Elliotte Friedman and Louie DeBrusk of Sportsnet spoke up.

“The one thing I’m saying if I’m the Oilers is, ‘I need these particular plays to be penalties against my star players,’ ” Friedman said after the Blues game, showing the Dunn replay, then showing Carl Gunnarson hooking Leon Draisaitl as he went to the net. “If I’m the Oilers, I’m saying to the NHL, ‘These are two of the best offensive players, and there’s no way one-on-one anybody is going to be able to stop them legally. We need these plays to be power plays for us.’ That’s what I would be doing if I was in their shoes.”

DeBrusk was more emphatic in his critique of NHL referees.

“You know what, the worst thing is that I find myself now trying to somehow talk around the fact that there wasn’t a call that should have been a call,” DeBrusk told Bob Stauffer on Oilers Now. “I think we’ve grown so used and accustomed to seeing (McDavid) getting grabbed and hooked and interfered with, it happens so often on a nightly basis, that you get desensitized to it. You truly do.”

Speaking of the Dunn arm-hold on McDavid, DeBrusk said: “Connor McDavid, the best player in the game, is driving in on an opportunity offensively and he gets hog-tied. He literally gets grabbed onto and there’s no call on it.

“Every single night I question and wonder why some penalties are called and why some aren’t. Unfortunately it’s at where this game is at right now. I don’t like it. I don’t think anybody likes it. It’s brutal.”

a hockey player with a bat © Provided by PostMedia Digital

The fouling is not going to stop

Many folks would like the unpenalized fouling to stop.

But it’s not going to stop.

It’s a strange dynamic that allows for this kind of ongoing abuse of the rule book and related abuse of the game’s best players. It’s a practice rooted in hockey’s traditions, in the NHL’s ethic and perhaps in the lack of goal scoring in NHL games.

On the one hand, the old-time hockey men believe that it’s important to “Let the the boys play,” to allow the players to battle fiercely without interrupting the flow of the game with too many penalties. There’s a certain appeal to this rugged and laissez faire notion of competition, but it ends up rewarding the teams that master of the art of fouling. They know that for every one foul they commit, they’ll get away with four or five or six borderline plays. This calculation is a winning one for them.

So long as they get away with this form of cheating, why would they ever stop?

At the same time, there’s a “Suck it up, Buttercup” attitude that permeates hockey. The  notion is that  players must fight, claw and scratch for everything, that this intense physical battling is the essence of the game, and that it’s just not right to let some fancy, dipsy doodling finesse player tdominate the game.

This is a hard man’s game, after all, not ballet. I

ndeed, it’s seen as unprofessional and even unmanly for a star player like a McDavid to complain too much to officials about being constantly fouled. When Wayne Gretzky started to cut loose on referees, opposing fans called him “The Whiner.” But maybe Gretzky was on to something.

It’s also the case that if you go back to the origins of the NHL, the owners were never too keen about paying full value for the star players. They never wanted the stars to think they were The Show and that they should be taking in a large share of the profits. What better way to keep them in check than by pushing the notion that the team is all important, not the individual stars, and to reinforce this notion by allowing so-called “team players” to slow down the stars with repeated unpenalized fouls? It was a way for the Lords of the Rink to keep a thumb on the greatest players. Does this dynamic still exist in the NHL? Not as much as it did in the 1950s, but old ways of thinking have a way of lingering.

Is the lack of penalties related to hockey being a low scoring game?

There may also be a structural reason built into the game that make hockey referee’s so reluctant to call penalties.

It’s well known that the National Basketball Association cracks down on fouls. This is seen as the league office protecting its star players, freeing them up to make spectacular plays.

But the NBA’s practice of calling the rule book consistently and strictly could mainly be related to the relative high amount of scoring in the league.

It’s not such a big deal to call a foul on a player and to award two shots to a superstar. Two converted free throws, two points, doesn’t make such a great difference in a game where teams regularly score 100 points.

But goals are much rarer in the NHL. One penalty and one two minute power play can easily decide a game in league where the typical score is 3-2.

The consequence of a penalty becomes so weighty in such a low-scoring league that it could well inhibit referees from calling too many penalties.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the one other major sport where we see referee’s reluctant to call penalties, European football, is also a sport with few goals, where one penalty shot could easily decide a match. Little wonder that clever and unpenalized fouling is also rampant in soccer.

Could an answer be shortening NHL penalties to one minute, instead of two? Maybe the league could make a whole class of interference penalties one minute offences, with more violent offences like elbowing and boarding two minutes?

Of course, the NHL would never enact such a reform. It’s too traditional a league to accept such major change.

Perhaps there are other reasons related to NHL culture that account for the constant amount of unpenalized fouling. I may well be missing a few things.

But there’s little reason to think the the notions of “Let the boys play” and “Suck it up, Buttercup!” are going to fade away from hockey. The best we can hope for is that the game doesn’t devolve into the ugliness we saw with the cheating and fouling Philadelphia Flyers of the 1970s and the hooking and holding New Jersey Devils of the 1990s.

At the Cult of Hockey

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