I want to start by saying something I have said over and over on both radio and TV. I have great admiration for the way the Anaheim Ducks play the game. I believe their philosophy is not new but it is brilliant. It plays on the one constant in NHL officiating. That is the official’s internal calculator. No matter how many changes to rules and their interpretation officials rarely drastically over penalize one team compared to the other. Just look through the box scores each morning and you will see that in a great many NHL games each team had about the same number of power plays. Does that mean the teams both committed the same number of fouls both called and uncalled? Usually it actually does and that is the balance that NHL referees try to maintain.
What happens if you as a team try to use that proclivity to your advantage? The late Roger Neilson once explained their philosophy when he coached the Florida Panthers. They didn’t believe their team was nearly skilled enough to have a chance to win it all. So what would the game plan be? The Hall of Fame coach’s idea was brilliant. What if you flood the game with fouls? Commit 100 fouls per game on purpose knowing the officials are only going to nail you for 6 or 7 or 8 because calling much more than that would slow the game down into un-watchability. Does the avalanche of fouls not somewhat level the playing field? It’s like death by a thousand cuts. There is no one egregious foul that changes the game, but rather a constant, numbing, frustrating dripping tap of continuous fouls which keep the opposition from ever feeling settled and in control of the game. It worked for the Panthers and it works for the Ducks.
Anaheim is the dirtiest team in the NHL and all the stats prove that. But what fans miss in their anger because their team was the victim of the Ducks “thousand cuts” game plan is the excellence Anaheim has achieved in executing this type of game plan. Getting everyone to play this way. Getting your skill players to play this way. Not an easy thing to do, but they have. It is not the type of hockey you can do half way. Everyone has to play that way to create a general look to the game that nothing is wrong or different from the way other teams play. But it is very different and believe me it is neither incidental nor accidental that the Ducks are the most penalized team in the league and have been shorthanded the most of any NHL club. In fact that is a benefit for them. When the league is criticized for not cracking down on the Ducks they just point to their penalty totals. How much more can you penalize the team which is already the most penalized team? The answer is yes you can. If a man convicted of murder is given a 3 year sentence one can certainly say he was punished but common sense tells you the penalty was not appropriate for the crime. If you are the Ducks and intentionally commit 50 or 60 fouls per game but on average only take 6 or 7 penalties per game is that not a light sentence which only encourages them to play the same way and in fact proves how effective a philosophy it is?
It is too convenient for those who think this is just whining from the guy who calls the Ottawa games. This exact same conversation goes on all around the league. It is especially prevalent in Detroit, Dallas and San Jose. Not surprising since there is a good chance one of those 3 teams will face Anaheim in the Western Final. Their talk shows are also filled with “how do those guys get away with that” the morning after each game against the Ducks. It’s a hot topic in Ottawa today because the Senators got more of the same in Orange County last night in their 3-1 loss and nobody should be surprised.
I repeat again, I am not complaining but rather just pointing out a reality. I think its brilliant managing and coaching. If I ran a team I would try to duplicate everything they do and how they do it. The Ducks know how much of a competitive advantage it is and they are experts at it. They should be applauded not persecuted. It’s the same conversation when talking about Chris Pronger. He is the dirtiest player in the NHL and I would have him on my team any time. It is a great strength not an indictment to have a player with a skill level so high play with that kind of edge. He breaks the rules all the time and gets away with a ton but that is what makes him one of the toughest opponents in the NHL. Who would not want that on their team? Pronger should carry the badge of “dirtiest player in hockey” with pride rather than getting upset when people say it, thinking it’s a shot of some kind. Most of the best players over the history of this game have also been some it’s dirtiest. Mark Messier, Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard are the first names which jump to mind.
It has taken me a great deal of time and space to get to my main point, but here it is. The only thing about this whole topic which I find distasteful is the disingenuous way the NHL treats people who point it out. It is intellectually insulting to have someone at the league level claim that home broadcasters are trying to incite fans to become negative towards the officials by simply showing plays, some of which were called and some were not. The implication that it is homerism has no credibility since Garry Galley and I on our Sportsnet broadcast also showed replays of Ottawa mis-deeds which were also uncalled. Garry and I also spent much of the first period and into the second criticizing the Ottawa forwards. While Anaheim was punishing the Senators defense with the body, the Ottawa forwards were taking fly-bys on the Ducks defense. Broadcasters on a homer telecast don’t mention those things. We do.
There is also an implication that we are bag men for Bryan Murray and his staff. Believe me Bryan is not sending us text messages during the game telling us when to start criticizing the officials on the air so it corresponds with his bench tirades. This broadcast was not an attempt to embarrass the officials, but rather on some nights the officiating and what they call and more often what they don’t has a major impact on the game. Last night was one of those nights.
The 2 biggest deciding factors in an NHL game on most nights are player error and officiating. Both are completely understandable. Hockey is a game of mistakes and officiating is always a no win situation since you are trying to manage the fastest non-motorized team sport in the world.
When we set out to broadcast a game we don’t sit down before hand to plot out ways to publicly erode confidence in the consistency of NHL officiating. But it’s pretty difficult to contend this is not a major problem in the NHL. Steve Yzerman was on Hockey Night in Canada after his induction into the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame and was asked what the number one issue facing the league was and he responded “officiating, nobody knows what a penalty is”. Is Yzerman a whiner? Is Steve plotting against the officials? No! Steve like all of us loves this game and that’s why it’s an emotional issue. But pretending it doesn’t exist is insulting. Berating and implying anyone who brings it up has a bias based on homerism is insulting.
While I applaud them for it and respect how well they do it. The fact is that Anaheim is the dirtiest team in the NHL and has the lowest foul to penalty-called ratio in the NHL and that gives them a distinct advantage. Every game is video taped. The evidence is there for anyone who wants to look at it but please don’t tell me I don’t see what I see or that I don’t know the rule book. My eyes work and I can read.
See you at the rink.