Oh, if only to see the NHL through Gary Bettman's rose-colored glasses
The Tampa Bay Lightning enter the Stanley Cup final $18 million over the salary cap and the dismal officiating has hijacked the playoffs, but there's nothing to see here
Regardless of what you think of NHL leadership, you have to admire these guys for their chutzpah. They wear their outlier status like a badge of honor and are brazenly unapologetic in the face of any form of criticism. Of course, it’s an attitude that has the league firmly ensconced as a distant No. 4 among the Big Four professional sports in North America, but their sense of defiance is admirable.
And it was once again on full display when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly made themselves available at their annual pre-Stanley Cup final state-of-the-union conference prior to Game 1 between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens. They also made it clear that the NHL will continue to operate as a league that really likes rules in theory, but is more than happy to be extremely loosey-goosey with those rules when it comes to application.
There is a sense of lawlessness on and off the ice in the NHL and it makes the league look amateurish, inauthentic and stuck in the past. But if you’re expecting anything in the way of improvements, you will suffer the same fate as Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. It’s actually fascinating to see how a league that has had its playoffs hijacked by terrible officiating and cap circumvention talks down to those who have the temerity to question it.
Let’s start with the salary cap. The NHL shut down its league and deprived fans of its product of a full season 16 years ago in order to reduce its player costs and attain cost certainty in the form of a salary cap. But one of the teams that is in the Stanley Cup final, the Lightning, is regularly icing a roster that is about $18 million in excess of that cap. But the NHL sees no flaws in a system that forces the Lightning to be cap compliant for a nothing game against a last-place team in March, but allows it $18 million more room for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final. We all know the Lightning are doing nothing wrong here by the letter of the law, but the arrogance of a league that allows this kind of thing, then expresses surprise that it is being pointed out, is remarkable.
“I’m not apologizing for what is a sound system and has been a sound system from the start,” Daly said.
Then, without missing a beat, Bettman, looking like a huckster posing as a legitimate questioner in a late-night infomercial, asked Daly, “How long has this provision been in effect?” To which Daly responded, “Since 2005.” And Bettman then capped it off by saying, “This is not new news for anybody.” And then they looked very pleased with themselves.
But the real whopper came when the subject of the league’s on-ice officiating came up. Bettman actually got out in front of it in his opening remarks when he trotted out his oft-repeated mantra that the NHL’s officials are not only the best hockey referees in the world, they’re the best at what they do of any sport. And he said fans should expect they’ll miss the occasional call, which is rational and understandable.
But NHL officiating is in a crisis. The Tim Peel debacle earlier this season brought the issue of game management to the forefront. Peel was one of the longest-serving referees in the league when he was caught admitting that he was looking to call a penalty on the Nashville Predators. That alone should have been enough to force the league to overhaul its system. The performance of some referees in these playoffs should have been the tipping point. But all Bettman did was defend the referees and what made it so shocking is he actually said the style of play changes in the playoffs because of the players and teams, not because of the officials.
Anyone can live with missed calls. They happen. But what about those times when a referee is watching two players repeatedly crosscheck or tackle each other and the call is not made? A missed call is one thing. An ignored call is another. There is an enormous difference between the two, but not in Bettman’s eyes. This might be a good time to point out that Connor McDavid has played more than 500 minutes of playoff hockey during his NHL career and has drawn a total of six minor penalties, zero in the past two seasons.
“You have to look at it from the perspective of the officials on the ice and what they get to see in real time,” Bettman said. “And I wouldn’t minimize the difficulty of that task.”
Fair enough. But didn’t Bettman just say moments before that NHL officials are the best of any sport in the world? Given that, should they not be held to a higher standard? Are they not in their positions presumably because they should be able to make those split-second decisions and get them right the majority of the time? The league completely took itself off the hook here. Bettman says the referees are the best in the world. He also says they are instructed to call the rulebook the same from Game 1 of the regular season through Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final. Well, the referees in the NHL are either incompetent or they’re being instructed to call the game in a certain way in the playoffs. It simply has to be one of those two things. Surprisingly, that’s not the way Bettman saw it, preferring to take aim at all the would-be officials who make calls from their Barcaloungers.
“I don’t think it would be fair to suggest that any of these games are being decided by the officials,” Bettman said. “They’re being decided by the players on the ice, as they should be. And it’s very easy to focus on the two or three calls you think they missed and it’s easier for you to see it from the vantage point you have. Try going on the ice and being in the midst of everything that’s going on and making split-second calls. It’s extraordinarily difficult.”
Bettman did drop an interesting nugget. He rightly pointed out that the league has tightened standards on slashing, “and we’re looking at crosschecking.” Well, isn’t that interesting? If the NHL referees are the best in the world and they actually miss – don’t ignore – a minute number of calls, why is there any reason to “look at crosschecking” in the first place?
The sooner the league can “look at crosschecking” and actually do something about the inconsistency with which it is called, the better. But, then again, that would force the NHL to admit there is a problem in the first place.
Carry on, then…