NHL referee Frederick L'Ecuyer

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Hartnett: NHL Risks Damaging Its Brand By Tolerating Dirty Play

Officiating Has Become A Joke In Recent Games

Sean Hartnett
December 19, 2018 - 2:10 pm

For some time, the NHL officiating has dipped well below substandard. The league has tolerated inconsistency, missed calls and noncalls -- and it’s hurting the sport’s entertainment value and growth potential.

Lately, the level of refereeing in the NHL has become farcical. On Tuesday, as Rangers forward Vladislav Namestnikov attempted to jam away at a loose puck, he was met with an attack from Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf at 14:15 of the first period.

The Ducks’ captain bulldozed Namestnikov and proceeded to cross-check him multiple times before instigating a fight.

Namestnikov did not remove his gloves, while Getzlaf removed his mitts and started throwing punches. Both players were called for offsetting double-roughing minors. What exactly did Namestnikov do to warrant a four-minute roughing double-minor? He wasn’t the slightest bit interested in exchanging fisticuffs.

Getzlaf was not called for an instigator penalty, much to the bemusement of Rangers head coach David Quinn.

“I don’t think Vladdy is looking to fight Getzlaf,” Quinn said following the game. “I guess the instigator fighting rule is just to take up ink in the rulebook, apparently.”

Rule 46.2 of the 2018-19 Official NHL Rules states:

"The aggressor in an altercation shall be the player who continues to throw punches in an attempt to inflict punishment on his opponent who is in a defenseless position or who is an unwilling combatant.

"A player must be deemed the aggressor when he has clearly won the fight but he continues throwing and landing punches in a further attempt to inflict punishment and/or injury on his opponent who is no longer in a position to defend himself.

"A player who is deemed to be the aggressor of an altercation shall be assessed a major penalty for fighting and a game misconduct.

"A player who is deemed to be the aggressor of an altercation will have this recorded as an aggressor of an altercation for statistical and suspension purposes. A player who is deemed to be both the instigator and aggressor of an altercation shall be assessed an instigating minor penalty, a major penalty for fighting, a ten-minute misconduct (instigator) and a game misconduct penalty (aggressor).”

Getzlaf was the aggressor. Namestnikov was an unwilling combatant. It does not get any clearer than this.

Refs Frederick L’Ecuyer and Jean Hebert absolutely botched this one. There’s no reasonable explanation why Getzlaf's and Namestnikov’s penalties were matching and offsetting.

Kevin Hayes later scored the game-winning goal on a short-handed breakaway with 40 seconds left in regulation. Filip Chyil added an empty-net goal seconds later, as the Rangers defeated Anaheim, 3-1.

On the same night in Vancouver, Tampa Bay Lightning forward Danick Martel delivered a clear head shot to Canucks defenseman Troy Stecher. Referees Dan O’Rourke and Reid Anderson assessed only a minor penalty for interference.

Martel hit Stecher from the blindside with an extended elbow, leaving Stecher crumbled on the ice. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper gave Martel a fist bump when he returned to the bench.

Stecher missed the remainder of the contest. The Lightning defeated the Canucks, 5-2.

According to a report by The Athletic’s Josh Yohe, the NHL’s higher-ups are pressuring refs to limit their enforcement of the rulebook to promote a more physical game.

“I’ve been told by a couple of sources during the past week that the NHL has notified its officials that more physicality and fewer penalties is the preference of high-ranking officials in the NHL," Yohe wrote in the report. "In recent games, this has become pretty evident."

So it won’t be surprising if Martel gets a slap on the wrist from the Department of NHL Player Safety or skates away scot-free.

With this kind of thinking going on at the highest positions of power, the NHL risks damaging its brand by devolving into a sport in which players can inflict whatever punishment they want on opponents without any fear of their actions being met with any kind of real deterrent.

None of this is surprising in a league headed by a commissioner who denies the link between concussions and the brain-withering disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). As some writers have accurately pointed out, the NHL’s response is similar to 1950s tobacco companies discrediting the science that linked smoking and lung cancer.

Commissioner Bettman, if you want the NHL to turn into the Wild West and want to continue being negligent about the safety of its players, then expect more head injury lawsuits and more multimillion-dollar settlements with former players.

Whether it’s through farcical noncalls or more serious issues such as the lack of real discipline for head-shot artists or embracing fighting’s value to the sport, the NHL is risking a lot by clinging to the past and failing to evolve with the times.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey​.​