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NHL Justice?

D'Arcy McGrath

December 11th, 2001

Last week on the ever-popular Survivor reality series, the African guests were asked to look into a barrel and quickly memorize a variety of items ranging from local foliage to elephant dung. Later they had to recall the exact position of each item.

If you get that elephant dung moving at the speed of a car, along with 11 other selections of elephant dung moving the same speed and you pretty much have the job of an NHL official.

The great American sport, baseball, has always had the top officials, or so the story goes.

"Look at that replay! Amazing they can be that accurate without a replay", some have argued.

Lost in that analysis is that each official has a static target to keep his peepers firmly fixed, be it a foul line, or a base, or a foul pole. It's of little consequence to a third base umpire what's going on behind him.

Hockey is a fast sport, a lot is going on at the same time, things are bound to get missed.

Take last night's Calgary Flame victory over the Detroit Red Wings. The officials made two serious blunders in the third period that greatly affected the outcome of the game.

First they ignored a Craig Conroy chop to the mitt of Chris Chelios (a guy that likely has this coming from a long and chippy career, but I digress), that directly led to a turn over and ultimately Jarome Iginla's winning goal.

A half period later they whistled Iginla for elbowing Sergei Fedorov, but then inexplicably took their eyes off the scene just as Fedorov returned the favour with much more intent and anger.

As I said, mistakes happen. The game is fast, decisions have to come instantaneously, and no human being could ever hope to satisfy fans from both teams, let alone 40 players, six coaches and two general managers.

As a rule I tend to cut these guys some slack ... who in their right mind aims to do a poor job?

Higher Court

The same can be said when players are called before Colin Campbell in New York for acts considered too heinous to be effectively punished within the confines of an individual hockey game.

Though each and every party always seems perturbed with the ruling, Campbell is doing the best that he can.

There has to be a good reason, right? Why would Campbell purposely butcher ruling after ruling?

In my mind I have always figured there must be pressures that the average fan just can't understand. Pressures from specific team owners, pressures from specific team general managers, from the NHLPA and player agents, from Campbell's former friends, colleagues and players. One can only imagine.

It clearly isn't an easy job.

Two Sides

Popular television color men often point out that the retaliation penalty always gets caught, and when you watch a hockey game it's true. More times than not the player reacting to a foul gets penalized, while the initiator seems to get off Scott free.

But why?

Seems to me that in order to catch the retaliation the official must have had his attention caught by the original incident? What other reason could there be to suddenly pay attention to a play in time to catch a response?

And another question ... why is this allowed to continue on ... especially with four officials on the ice?

The same can be said for this week's incident between the Calgary Flames and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

His Honor Mr. Campbell was very accurate in sending a message to Greg Gilbert, Craig Berube and Scott Nichol - all three played a role in the mess that, although very interesting to watch, was a black eye for hockey.

The issue is why can't the "cause" of this mess also come under scrutiny? Why didn't the Anaheim bench boss Bryan Murray also answer the bell for having a load of goons on the ice late in a blow out win for his club?

Why was Craig Berube suspended for chasing down an unwilling Jeff Friesen, resulting in a three game suspension, but Denny Lambert's similar assault on Jarome Iginla resulted in nothing? Is the NHL trying to add a caveat to the instigator rule that says "physical players may only attack superstars are that are more than willing to pound said physical player into next week"? Paul Kariya can't fight nor defend himself so it's acceptable for an Anaheim coach to lay out a retaliation plan for a clean hit?

Why was Scott Nichol suspended two games for spitting, when there was no proof beyond a linesman's word, yet Ruslan Salei will miss no time whatsoever for using his melon as a battering ram?

It only seems natural that questions like these will be asked, yet it's very unlikely any tangible answers will ever be offered.

It is more likely that additional fines for speaking out against the NHL's discipline man will be in the works due to Craig Button and Greg Gilbert's comments yesterday.

The NHL has a firm hold on dissention you see. Players, coaches and general managers are all forbidden to criticize on ice officials, so I'd imagine the same would be true for questioning Mr. Campbell.

In fact a high school chum of mine was basically silenced just today, showing the NHL may be taking the gag order a little far.

Said chum, an avid Flame fan, fired off an email to the league office complaining about the suspension decisions, and looking for an explanation.

The response? A sarcastic threat from Mr. Campbell that read ... "Maybe I should start being "tougher" by suspending the Flame who speared Larionov last night. Never complain, never explain!"

Is that an acceptable response by an NHL executive to a ticket buying hockey fan with a legitimate beef?

Mr. Campbell, in a later response, stated that the original email was cheeky or sarcastic, and so his response was befitting, but that is letting himself off easy. The NHL is in the entertainment business, a fan is supposed to react with emotion, that's the whole point of being a fan, but I would have thought an NHL official would realize he's a professional.

Given the state of hockey today, I shouldn't be surprised how little a fan matters.




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