Shane O\'Brien and Kevin Bieksa fight for the puck. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
So here’s an annoying point in the whole discussion on diving in the NHL: it works.
That’s about the only positive thing I (or anyone else) should have to say about it - and technically, it’s not even a positive thing. But because it works, it’s easy to understand why a grown man - a professional hockey player on national TV, mind you - would act like he just took a lumberjack axe to the ankles when he only received a little whack.
Still, there are a couple of things refs can do to quell the disappointing rise in players flopping around the ice like so many salmon in a bucket (which I’ll get to further down). If it’s not quelled the risk factor won’t be that high when you think about doing it, so guys will carry on.
As teams scream towards the third round, the stakes are higher than ever. And since power plays have always had the ability to decide close contests and diving calls are rare, why not give it a go?
While guys who choose to outright dive should be openly flogged at center ice during intermission, embellishment is a different story; while still weak, it trends a little more towards a grey area.
In general, refs do a poor job calling hooks and holds (and even trips and slashes) if the player on the receiving end doesn’t go down (and when he does, the refs are too quick to assume foul play). Embellishing what should’ve been a penalty greatly increases the chances you’ll actually get the call, so the stripes put the players in a bit of a tough position.
It can be brutally frustrating when you fight through a slogging hook and your opponent isn’t punished with a penalty. You can stay on your skates after a violent slash, too, but that doesn’t necessarily grab the refs’ attention (which isn’t to justify a dive, it’s just a contributing factor).
The second there’s a body on the ice as a result of two players interacting, the ref has the “was that a penalty or not?” question pop into his head. It mustn’t come up as easily when the victim stays on his skates.
Of course, it is a matter of ethics. Those principled players who abstain from diving and embellishing should be lauded for maintaining the integrity of the game. We’re not trying to go the way of soccer here.
But for those players who’ll do absolutely anything to win - guys such as Sean Avery, who forced the NHL to create a rule to stop players from going too far in their attempt to win at any cost - they’ll keep doing it until we re-focus on a clean up.
All of that is a long way to say, “I get why it happens.” So how to get it out?
The fix the refs need to make is two-fold. The first part is they simply need to get back to calling diving penalties (unsportsmanlike conducts) the way they used to - and the way they did on Jordin Tootoo in Game 6 against Vancouver. As James Mirtle pointed out in his column Tuesday morning, in 2002-03 a diving penalty was whistled an average of once every 10 games. This season, the grand total was a mere 32.
The second equally simple and important change we need from the officials is to stop waiting for there to be a body on the ice to call a penalty, as they’re prone to do. A hook is a hook is a hook. Just because a guy is strong enough to stay on his skates doesn’t mean he was any less hindered than someone whose balance isn’t as good.
In the playoffs, there tends to be more desperation clutching-and-grabbing and while penalties are being called at a rate comparable to the regular season, actual infractions take place more frequently.
I’m not sure when so many players stopped taking pride in being a tough SOB that nobody could take down like they did 20 years ago. They can’t let their frustrations over non-calls get the better of them either. These guys are supposed to be pros.
The dive is rooted in unprofessionalism and leaves a bad taste in all our mouths - I understand why guys do it, but it’s still bush league. Hopefully refs can get a handle on it quickly, before the trend hacks at the league’s ankles and brings down the overall quality of the product.
Justin Bourne last played for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL and is currently a columnist for USA Today. He excelled with the University of Alaska Anchorage before going on to spend time in the Islanders organization with Bridgeport and Utah. His father, Bob, spent 14 years in the NHL and won four Cups with the Islanders. Justin will blog regularly for THN.com and you can read more of Justin's blogs at jtbourne.com. Follow Justin on Twitter.