Sportsmanship hard to enforce

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:09 AM ET

BUFFALO -- It's not a surprise that a refereeing controversy clouded Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final on Tuesday. The surprise is that it didn't happen sooner.

Let's face it, an officiating controversy was inevitable -- and not just because of this year's radical changes to the philosophy of officiating. Do you ever remember a post-season when there weren't officiating controversies?

It is to the National Hockey League's credit, that there haven't been more this year. But this latest one highlights a problem that needs to be examined thoroughly.

The call in question was an overtime boarding penalty to Doug Weight of the Carolina Hurricanes. Weight was trying to forecheck Jason Pominville, and when the latter twisted his body, Weight hit him from behind.

Pominville said he didn't see Weight coming. It's a convenient story, but if a player carrying the puck behind his own net doesn't know where the opponents are -- especially the opponent closest to him -- his tenure in the league isn't likely to be a lengthy one.

In fact, Pominville made a similar move earlier in the game. The Carolina checker that time was Niclas Wallin who was sent off for two minutes. So let's dispose of the fantasy that Pominville is merely a star-crossed victim of serendipity.

At the same time, it must be pointed out with equal clarity that as far as the check is concerned, under the NHL's rules, Pominville did absolutely nothing wrong. If he wants to turn his back to a check, he's perfectly free to do so.

But when that circumstance arises, the referee is placed in an untenable position. He knows the league wants to crack down on hits from behind -- and justifiably so. Watching from the press box on Tuesday was Carolina forward Erik Cole, who suffered a broken neck on a play of that nature three months ago, is out for the season and was told by doctors that he is lucky he is not a paraplegic.

On the other hand, the referee knows that once a player starts to deliver a bodycheck, he can't reverse the process -- at least not in the time it takes a player to turn his back.

The referee therefore makes the best call he can under the circumstances, but he can't win. If he allows play to continue, he is open to charges he ignored a flagrant foul that could have caused injury. If he makes a call, he is in the middle of a controversy that lingers long afterwards, especially if the power play results in an overtime goal, as this one did.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that sportsmanship has all but disappeared from sport. Today's coaches and players will do anything to win and if that involves taking advantage of a loophole in the rules, so be it.

Weight says, with some justification, that 15 years ago, Pominville would have been chastised by his teammates for what he did. On Tuesday, he was congratulated.

The league can't impose sportsmanship. But it can at least do what it said it would do -- crack down on diving.

Many of the "hits from behind" then are embellished by a dive into the boards that makes the infraction look worse than it is. It's often the crash into the boards that draws the penalty.

For the most part, the league has done a superb job of keeping its promises regarding firmer enforcement, but in this one, it failed miserably. Perhaps if players who intentionally turn to meet a check know there is a good chance they'll get called for diving, they'd react differently.

Still, it's extremely difficult to make rules that affect a play of this nature. You don't want hits from behind, but how can you tell a player he can't turn?

Once the league has taken a serious approach to diving, there is not much else it can do. This is a problem that needs to be addressed by coaches and players, not just the league.

After all, it is for the players' benefit that the league is trying to prevent hits from behind. If players embarrass the league, they're the ones who will get hurt in the long run.

Perhaps even paralyzed.


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