The Problem with Playoff Hockey

The benefits of cheating

The Stanley Cup finals are starting today. In the last few years, my interest in hockey has waned, partly because I’m not participating in hockey pools anymore and partly because I find the games more frustrating than entertaining. This year’s playoffs has illustrated that in spades.

Hockey should be a fast-paced game of skill. The players are skating on ice—they’re able to move faster than players in any other team sport. While zooming around, they’re using sticks to control a small black puck. It’s incredibly skillful, and should be among the most entertaining sports to watch.

But it isn’t, and that’s because of the refereeing.

The problem

There are a bunch of rules in hockey. For instance, you’re not allowed to take your stick in two hands, and use it to batter opposing players’ backs. You’re also not allowed to swing your stick like an axe across the opposing players’ hands. You’re not allowed to grab and hold the other players, or even hook your stick around their body and force them to pull you along like a water skier. You can’t even block people from getting to the puck, deliberately impeding their path.

These are all good rules—they’re either important for player safety or to ensure that the game flows. And flow is what you want. It makes the game more exciting, and ensures the players can showcase their skills.

But, for these rules to make any difference to the result of the game, referees must enforce them by calling penalties when players break the rules. And often, even in the regular season, that doesn’t happen, and it gets even worse in the playoffs.

Don’t affect the game

During the playoffs, commentators and many fans say that referees shouldn’t affect the outcome of the game. “Let them play” is a common refrain when fans think too many penalties are being called. But the result of this chorus is that in the playoffs, penalties are rarely called. Players violate the rules in flagrant ways, and the referees sit by and allow them to do it.

The result is a bizarre situation where if a player accidentally shoots the puck into the crowd, they are penalized (because such a penalty is mandatory), but axing a players hands, potentially breaking a bone or severing a finger isn’t (because the referee doesn’t want to call a penalty that might “affect the outcome of the game”.)

The thing is, by not making the call, the referees are affecting the outcome of the game.  They’re basically saying, “the team that is willing to cheat and physically injure the other team is the team that deserves to win”.  The referees are giving a massive advantage to the cheating team, and abandoning their responsibility to protect the health of players.

Today’s extremes

This clip of Messi, arguably the best soccer player in the world, nicely illustrates the tactics that players ought to use on defence when the referees don’t want to affect the outcome of the game.

Essentially, the right strategy is to target the other team’s best players. Smash them with sticks. Tackle them to the ice. Heck, elbow them in their face to break their jaws. If Sydney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin are so injured they can’t play, or if they have to try to skate around and control the puck while dragging a 230 pound gorilla everywhere, they will have a much harder time scoring. I have no skill at hockey, but, as long as the referees don’t call penalties, I’m pretty sure I can almost completely nullify the best players in the world.

The bottom line

This is why playoff hockey is so frustrating. I want to watch end to end action. I want to watch exciting plays. I want to see the abilities of the best players in the world showcased in the most important games of their lives. But, referees deliberately not enforcing the rules results in boring games where you take away the skill, enabling the most mediocre players to counter the best.

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