The 2016 NHL playoffs have been nothing if not controversial. We’ve had blown calls, suspensions, non-suspensions and bad blood. There have been unfortunate soundbites and inappropriate gestures. And everyone from the players to the fans to the media have been involved.
If all of this sounds familiar, it should. We go through this same list every year. The NHL playoffs are a breeding ground for controversy, thanks to high emotions, an ever intensifying spotlight and razor-thin margins separating victory from defeat. On any given night, you can count on something happening somewhere that will have fans at each other’s throats. And there’s plenty more to come. After all, we’re only halfway through this year’s playoffs.
So this seems like a good time to regroup and remind ourselves that we’ve been here before and we’ll be here again. Here are the dozen controversies you’re likely to meet in any given post-season, including this one, and a refresher on how best to handle them.
The Crucial Missed Call
What happens: The play itself isn’t flagrantly dirty – we’ll get to those ones down below. But it’s clearly a penalty, one you’ve seen called virtually every other time it happens. But this time, for whatever reason, there’s no call. And inevitably, a game-changing play follows right behind.
Examples from history: Wayne Gretzky’s high stick; the Blackhawks score with too many men on the ice; Daniel Alfredsson on Darcy Tucker; Travis Green’s slash on Alexei Kovalev, which we were all fine with because it led to a best actor nomination.
Examples from this year: The missed tripping calls right before the tying goal in the final game of the opening round series between the Islanders and Panthers; depending on your perspective, maybe also Brian Boyle‘s late hit on Thomas Hickey that led to an overtime winner.
How to handle it: We all complain about referees putting their whistles away in the playoffs and insist that we want them to call the game by the rulebook – right up until one of them actually does, at which point we howl about officials thinking anyone paid to see them decide the game.
The Dirty Play (without a suspension)
What happens: Maybe it’s a hit, maybe it’s stick work, or maybe it’s something else entirely. But somebody steps over the line, and fans and media everywhere demand a suspension that never comes.
Examples from history: Shea Weber on Henrik Zetterberg; Pavel Bure on Shane Churla; Ulf Samuelsson on Cam Neely; P.K. Subban on Mark Stone; no, seriously, go back and watch that Bure/Churla hit again, it was insane.
Examples from this year: Kris Letang on Viktor Stalberg; Jason Chimera on Jakub Voracek; Evgeni Malkin on Daniel Winnik; literally anything that was done to any player on your favourite team, if we’re being honest.
How to handle it: We all spend a few days complaining about the Department of Player Safety never suspending anyone during the playoffs. Seriously, don’t they realize that if they’d just give the guy something, even if it were only a few games, we’d all be happy?
The Dirty Play (with a suspension)
What happens: The same as the previous category, only this time the league gives us what we want and serves up a suspension. Spoiler alert: Everybody is still unhappy.
How to handle it: Everyone unanimously agrees that the suspension is for the wrong number of games, although we’re split between whether it’s too high or too low. Most of us complain that it’s not enough, because we never think any suspension is enough; meanwhile, the old school guys argue that it’s way too much. Nobody is happy. Nobody will ever be happy.
The Unsportsmanlike Conduct
What happens: A player gets in trouble, but for once it’s not for an act of physical violence. Instead, it’s something else – a word, a gesture, something – that crosses a line. Depending on exactly how far over the line the moment goes, the league may have to step in and take action.
Examples from history: Andrew Ference flips off the fans; Milan Lucic threatens everyone in a handshake line; Shawn Thornton squirts P.K. Subban with a water bottle; all those finger taunts in the 2011 final. And yes, for some reason these tend to disproportionately involve the Bruins. (Also, just for fun, Brendan Shanahan vs. this fan.)
Examples from this year: Andrew Shaw’s one-game suspension for using a homophobic slur; Shaw’s obscene gestures at officials in the moments leading up to that; Ryan Reaves blows kisses at the Stars bench; Brian Boyle’s chicken dance at Justin Abdelkader.
How to handle it: If it’s a relatively minor offence, like Reaves or Boyle, we all have a good laugh and quickly forget about it. In more serious cases, like Shaw’s, we get the age-old debate over how far is too far in the heat of a hockey game. Ideally, the league does the right thing and we all move forward.
What happens: Nobody’s under more pressure during the playoffs than coaches, who are in the spotlight both during and after games. Eventually, somebody is going to say or do something that they shouldn’t have. Sometimes it’s a heat-of-the-moment slip; more often, it’s a calculated move. But it’s no big deal because the media would certainly never blow anything out of proportion.
Examples from history: Dave Cameron threatens payback after the Subban slash; Joel Quenneville’s crotch grab; Roger Neilson waves the white flag; Don Cherry gets colourful after the Too Many Men Game; pretty much every John Tortorella press conference; and, of course, the undisputed king of them all: “Have another doughnut”.
Examples from this year: Barry Trotz implies that the league is biased towards the Penguins.
How to handle it: These generally blow over quickly, since fans understand that coaches grandstanding is just part of the game at this time of year. Well, unless doughnuts are involved. Then we somehow end up with random old guys in raincoats refereeing conference final games.
The Media Blowup
What happens: This is the controversy in which the media isn’t just the conduit, but actually gets to be part of the story. It often involves somebody yelling f-bombs at us. Weird how that works out.
How to handle it: We all agree that the media have a difficult job, and take a moment to reflect on the crucial if thankless role that they play in the hockey world. No? That’s just me? OK, figured as much.
The Offside Review
What happens: Somebody scores a goal. We all get excited. Then we remember the new offside review rule exists, at which point we go make a sandwich while a linesman squints at an iPad for what feels like an hour.
Examples from history: None. Or, as we call it now, “the good old days”. (Although there was this missed call from the 1980 final. Be careful what you wish for.)
Examples from this year: Pretty much every goal that’s been scored in the last month, it feels like.
How to handle it: We all start to wonder why we implemented this rule in the first place. Some offer suggestions for improving the rule, others make the case for scrapping it altogether. We all feel vaguely nervous that we’re headed towards another Brett Hull moment. Everybody wonders if it would be impolite to mention the fact that NHL linesmen have apparently been terrible at their jobs all this time and none of us noticed.
Fans Behaving Badly
What happens: At some point, something’s going to happen that makes the hometown crowd very angry. They won’t handle it well.
Examples from history: John Tortorella vs. Capitals fans; Jets fans chant about Katy Perry; Panthers fans get a little carried away with the whole rat thing; Bruins fans reach over the glass to pummel Leafs players after Pat Quinn smokes Bobby Orr; anyone booing a national anthem; anyone cheering an injury; anyone rioting.
Examples from this year: Flyers fans pelting the ice with bracelets.
How to handle it: If it’s your fan base, stay down and hope it all blows over. If it’s somebody else, dial up the outrage and make sure everyone knows that you and your fellow fans would never be part of such a vulgar display. Ignore the many examples of the times you totally were. And most important of all, remember: You’re not allowed to go more than three sentences without using the word “classy”.
The Stick Measurement
What happens: A big goal is scored, a coach calls for an illegal stick challenge, and the officials have to find that little metal contraption and blow the cobwebs off of it.
Examples from history: Sorry, Marty.
Examples from this year: None! And none last year, or the year before that. This one never happens any more. We need to bring back the illegal stick challenge.
How to handle it: Normally, we’d all agree that a rule is a rule – we all keep saying we want the rulebook called, right? But in reality, we lose our minds and accuse the coach in question of violating some unknown chapter of The Code. Tell me you don’t want to see this play out in the Twitter era, just once. Come on, coaches, make it happen.
The Bad Blood That Goes Too Far
What happens: A little bit of bad blood can be the difference between a good playoff series and a great one. But every now and then, somebody takes it too far and whole thing descends into farce, if not something worse.
Examples from this year: Nothing yet, knock on wood.
How to handle it: Unlike most of the dirty plays up above, these ones tend not to generate too much debate – we can all agree that a line has been crossed, and the repercussions are usually severe, with suspensions pushing into the following season. The bad blood can linger for years, though.
The Weird Thing That Nobody Quite Knows How to Handle
What happens: If you’ve watched enough hockey, you figure you’ve seen it all. You haven’t.
Examples from history: Patrick Kane‘s Cup winner that nobody actually saw; Andrew Shaw’s overtime headbutt goal from last year; John LeClair “scores” through the side of the Sabres net; the Cup final power failure at the Boston Garden; Marc Bergevin throws the puck into his own net; a bat attack during the ’75 final; Sean Avery vs. Martin Brodeur.
Examples from this year: Antoine Roussel scores a goal by kicking it from behind the net, bouncing it off the back of Devan Dubnyk’s head, and then watching it trickle over the line just as the net is knocked off its moorings.
How to handle it: We all learn a new rule or two. See, sometimes controversy can be educational.
The Dreaded Disputed Overtime Goal
What happens: Sudden death overtime in the NHL playoffs is pretty much the greatest thing ever. The best ones are ended by brilliant goals, ideally by superstars making the sort of play that only the very elite would even think to try. Far more often, the game ends on a bad bounce or a fluke deflection. But every so often, we get the worst-case scenario: the dreaded disputed goal, one that leaves one team seething that they were robbed.
Examples from history: Joel Otto kicks in a Game 7 winner; the Blues take out Eddie Belfour; Henri Richard’s gloved-in Cup winner; the Martin Gelinas phantom goal from the 2004 final that wasn’t actually in overtime but we’ll include because everyone thinks it was; and, of course, Brett Hull’s skate-in-the-crease Cup winner.
How to handle it: We saved the best for last. This is just about the most controversial play you can get, since an entire series can turn on one overtime goal. Fans of the losing team go ballistic. Fans of the winning team desperately try to defend the call. We usually get a few solid days’ worth of discussion, debate, and freeze-frame analysis, all of which leads to an uneasy truce in which most of us can finally bring ourselves to agree that, yeah, they probably got it right. Then, a few days later, the exact same play happens in another series and we get a different call.