December 19, 2007
Clutch-and-grab hockey makes its ugly return
By MORRIS DALLACOSTA -- Sun Media
Please, make it go away.
Like Freddy Krueger and his mask, it's come back to make hockey hell.
A check on most nights in the National Hockey League turns up an increasing number of 1-0, 2-1 and 2-0 final scores. Since the NHL lockout, those scores had become as rare as a Toronto Maple Leaf playoff appearance.
There has been growing discussion -- and growing unease -- in recent weeks about this lack of scoring. There's no need to wear out one's jowls discussing why it's happening.
The reason is as plain as the hooking, holding, interference and obstruction that's taking place on the ice.
Yes, ugly hockey is working its way back into the system.
What was almost eliminated with the establishment of new rules and new levels of enforcement after the lockout, is slowly reappearing.
But that's not what's most worrisome. It was to be expected that after the initial crackdown there would be a relapse. Players would attempt to get back to the evil ways of equalizing the playing field by laying a stick on an individual, giving him a couple of tugs to hold him back or grabbing him for a brief moment, just enough to prevent him from getting a chance to score.
There was also an expectation that every once in a while the referees would loosen their grip on the game, allowing for the occasional return to clutch-and-grab hockey.
Armed with that knowledge, the hope was that officials would be reminded that obstruction and its associated tentacles were still not allowed.
That hasn't happened.
There has been a noticeable increase in restraining fouls that go unpunished. There has been an increase in what is termed game management by officials. That means, depending on the situation, a penalty that is called at one point may not be called later in the game.
That goes back to the ridiculous notion that no matter what a player does late in a close game, no penalty should be called so that "players can decide a game, not the referees."
Watch any number of games that are tied or within a goal of each other and more often than not, a player will be pulled down or hooked or he'll dump the puck in the opposing zone and will be held up as he tries to go after it, all without a penalty being called.
This leads to fewer goals and chances.
It leads to the prison-break theory. If a prisoner escapes and nothing is changed, it gives others the idea they can do the same thing. Pretty soon the inmates are running the asylum.
So it is with hockey. The more a player is able to get away with, the more he'll try to get away with. It works with officials as well, the more they ignore a foul, the more they feel they have to ignore in order to even things up.
As a result, 1-0, 2-1, 2-0 games become the norm rather than the exception and the relative free-flowing game players and fans were enjoying has been supplanted by something we had before that wasn't working.
What's more distressing is under this system, mediocrity is rewarded yet again, while skill languishes.
Haven't we been there before? Haven't we learned our lesson? Has all the heartache, hard work and angst the game has suffered in recent years, bought nothing?
Here's a plea from a fan who enjoys the new game. Stand firm. Call the game the way it was being called after the lockout. Give the game back to the players who have the skill, speed and inventiveness to play the game.
Do that and there won't be any worry about the lack of scoring.
The game was heading in the right direction. Don't make a U-Turn now.