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Are the NHL playoffs a work like wrestling?
By MATTHEW BYER - SLAM! Wrestling


Kings winger Justin Williams (14) celebrates his second goal of the game against the Sharks with teammates Dustin Brown (23) and Anze Kopitar (11) during Game 7 of their Western Conference semifinal series in Los Angeles, Tuesdya, May 28, 2013. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Often people deride professional wrestling as not being a true sporting endeavour because the winner and loser of each match are predetermined. Yet, after watching the first two rounds of the 2013 NHL Playoffs the question has to be asked as to whether or not the games are any less "rigged" compared to pro wrestling.

As many in Canada are aware, 2013 marks the twentieth year of the last Stanley Cup winner from Canada, the Montreal Canadiens. Since 1993, no other team from Canada has won the Stanley Cup. That's whole generations of hockey fans in Canada who have grown up and never known what it is to see one of the country's NHL teams win the Stanley Cup. That's a tragedy. Through that time there has always been at least six Canadian NHL teams out of a total of 30; 20% of the league. Statistically speaking that means we should have seen at least one Stanley Cup winner from Canada during the last 20 years, but instead there have been none.

So could this be a case of the Canadian NHL teams either being mismanaged or unlucky? It seems very unlikely. Since 1993 there have been five occasions when a Canadian NHL team has made the Stanley Cup Finals; the Vancouver Canucks in 1994, the Calgary Flames in 2004, the Edmonton Oilers in 2005, the Ottawa Senators in 2007, and the Vancouver Canucks in 2011.

From all appearances, the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals between the Vancouver Canucks and the New York Rangers seems to have been refereed and judged fairly by the league without any undue influence on the end result. Yet, fast forward to the 1999 final between the Dallas Stars and the Buffalo Sabres and you begin to see questionable results. For the entire 1998-99 season if a player was in the goaltender's crease when a goal was scored that goal would be disallowed. Yet, in the third overtime of Game 6 the goal scored by Brett Hull to win the game and the series was allowed despite the fact that Hull's foot was in the goal crease.

When the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals between the Calgary Flames and the Tampa Bay Lightning rolled around the NHL officials were conveniently not counting what appeared to be a legitimate goal by the Calgary Flames in Game 6. In the third period of that game, Martin Gelinas appeared to score a goal for Calgary, but the play continued on; and Tampa Bay eventually scored to tie up the game and send it to overtime. The goal by Gelinas was never even officially reviewed by the NHL and by not doing so created an impression of the league trying to favour the Lightning. The Flames would go on to lose Game 6 in overtime and eventually the Stanley Cup.


The 2006 Stanley Cup winners, the Carolina Hurricanes, would win the finals through a different sort of dubious means. In the first round of the NHL playoffs, the Carolina Hurricanes Justin Williams hit Saku Koivu of the Canadiens with a high stick in the eye despite Koivu wearing a visor. Not only was there no suspension, but there was no penalty on the play. The following game a similar high sticking incident was committed by Carolina and again no suspension was forthcoming for the offending Hurricanes player. In the Eastern Conference Finals Carolina continued injuring players on the other side by taking out several Buffalo Sabres defencemen. Not one Carolina Hurricanes player was suspended. By the time of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Edmonton Oilers, the Hurricanes had perfected the art of injuring players without getting suspended when they took out Oilers' goaltender Dwayne Roloson in the final period of Game 1. The Oilers were never quite the same after that and while they valiantly pushed the series to seven games they eventually lost to Carolina. Of course, no Hurricane player was suspended, nor any of the coaching staff who had obviously implemented this approach.

In 2006 Chris Pronger demanded a trade, but limited the NHL teams he would be willing to report to. His actions resulted in the Edmonton Oilers having to trade him to the Anaheim Ducks for very little in return. The Ducks would go on to win the Stanley Cup in 2007 over the Ottawa Senators, and Pronger was a key reason why.

Sadly, that final also slanted things in favour of the Anaheim Ducks which did have a discernible effect on the results. First, the Ducks delayed the beginning of the final by saying their arena was unavailable for a couple of days due to it being used for other events. Later events would show that the contracts signed with their arena contained clauses that would have allowed the Stanley Cup final to start on-time. This meant that the Ducks got additional days of rest that they shouldn't have had; and because the Ottawa Senators had beaten the Buffalo Sabres in five games they were off so long that rust set in and they weren't as game ready as Anaheim.

However, that would not be the end of the unsettling advantages given to the Ducks. Throughout the 2006-07 season, and all the rest of the NHL playoffs, the referees had actively made an effort to call the interference and holding which had plagued the game for years and made for some truly ugly hockey. Yet, for the 2007 Stanley Cup Final the referees conveniently stopped calling those sorts of penalties further slanting things in the Ducks favour. The image that sums up the 2007 Stanley Cup Final best is an Anaheim Ducks defenceman sitting on top of Ottawa Senators winger Dany Heatley for about five minutes in front of the referee while laughing at him. Is it any surprise that the smaller Ottawa Senators team only won one game and lost the Stanley Cup?

By the 2010-11 season it became more and more apparent that the NHL was focused on having teams from the larger television markets win the Stanley Cup. The previous spring the Chicago Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup since 1961, and that trend would continue in 2011 when the Boston Bruins would beat the Vancouver Canucks in the final. The Bruins would employ a similar strategy throughout that season which the Hurricanes had employed back in 2006 -- injure the opponent's players and not get suspended.

Who can forget the ugly hit by the Bruins captain Zdeno Chara on the Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty towards the end of the 2010-2011 season which resulted in no suspension and excuses from the league about why it wasn't illegal? Yet, the NHL would display their hypocrisy when they suspended Vancouver Canucks' defenceman Aaron Rome for a lesser hit on the Bruins Nathan Horton in Game 3 of the finals. While Canucks goaltender Roberto Loungo did not play well in the losses to the Boston Bruins in the 2011 final, if you review a number of the goals you can see the Bruins frequently interfering with him in the crease which went uncalled and further helped Boston to win.

With all of that on display it seems strange that so many analysts didn't understand why in Game 5 of their 2013 second round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the last remaining team from Canada, the Ottawa Senators didn't play with the desperation of a team trying to stave off elimination; they knew the fix was in. The one-sided refereeing, the first two doubtful goals allowed by league reviews, the no-trade/no-movement clauses, the NHL allowing Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby to call up Jarome Iginla just before the trade deadline to encourage him to nix the deal that would have sent him to the Bruins and better helped his former team, the Calgary Flames, and a salary cap system that's a joke and allows Pittsburgh to bring in a bunch of ringers and make a mockery of the regular season; all of these are why the Ottawa Senators didn't kill themselves in Game 5 and make the eventual victory by the Pittsburgh Penguins more glorious.

It is pretty apparent that the entire Canadian marketplace is probably not as important to the NHL brass as the Los Angeles or Chicago marketplace. So for anyone wondering why the NHL would want certain teams to win the Stanley Cup over others it's rather simple. It's all about money. The Stanley Cup wins by the Dallas Stars, Carolina Hurricanes, and the Tampa Bay Lightning were all about popularizing the game of hockey in non-traditional markets. The wins by the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings were about garnering the money and ratings in the second largest market in the United States and the wins by the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks were for similar reasons.

Being the Pittsburgh Penguins are made up of star players picked up from teams throughout the North American continent, who have been heavily marketed by the NHL, it is highly probable that the league wants them in the Stanley Cup final this year against either Chicago, or one of the California based teams in order to generate a truck full of money.

If that isn't a case of setting up a system to predetermine the outcome of the Stanley Cup I don't know what is. Still, it wouldn't be so horrendous if the National Hockey League would at least stop pretending that these are fair contests and rather simply sporting exhibitions.

That's in large part why I have infinitely more respect for professional wrestling as they simply try to entertain you and not to insult your intelligence.

Many years ago Brett Hull was playing a game in Ottawa against the Ottawa Senators where he was roundly booed. He was interviewed during the intermission and asked how he felt about it. He responded and said it didn't bother him because he saw himself as an entertainer. It may have been the most honest thing he ever said during his career.

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  • Previous Mat Matters Editorial columns

    Matthew Byer would like to thank his father David Byer for his thoughts and opinions which went in to the making of this article. Check out Matthew's advice column The Male Perspective.