A few years ago Tim Donaghy caused a bit of an uproar when he said certain NBA refs were company men who made calls that influenced games in order to cause certain playoff matchups. While the NBA decried that the disgraced ref was just a criminal trying to wriggle his way out of trouble, they also went through the trouble of suing the original publisher of his book. People who did the legwork and looked at the games in question did find a disparity in foul calls. While in the long run this incident didn't seem to hurt the league, I believe after last week's Islanders-Rangers game (a 6-2 Islanders win) a light needs to be shined on the NHL now.
As I tend to do with politics from time to time, it always comes down to following the money. Right now the NHL seems to be in perfect position to cash in with a new TV deal. With the current NFL lockout leaving the season up in the air, and a potential work stoppage also threatening the NBA, this would possibly make the NHL the only game in town when it starts again in October. The NHL could cash in very well on this situation, but obviously they need to show continued ratings growth. Remember how last time the NHL was "the in thing" ... it was right after a Cup win by its Manhattan team?
How does this all tie into a Rangers vs. Islanders match-up with four games left in the season, where the big-market playoff bubble team received eight powerplays (including two 5-on-3s totaling 1:26), and the lottery team that controlled the majority of play received just two (one an automatic delay-of-game call, the other a meaningless call long after the game was already decided)?
As anyone can tell by looking at the standings, the Rangers were teetering on the edge. If the Rangers were to fall out of the playoffs, they would most likely be replaced by the Carolina Hurricanes. This would leave the NYC area without a team in the playoffs for the first time since 1966 (thanks BCIslesman). Now I'm not mocking Carolina, but given that NYC is the largest media market in the United States and that Charlotte and Raleigh are both in the mid-20s, it might be a big ratings hit and possibly pocketbook hit if the Rangers fall out of the playoffs too.
Maybe I am being a tad paranoid and reading a bit too much into nothing, but I only started thinking of this when it came out that Marian Gaborik was not going to be suspended for his hit on (in fact, not only did Gaborik only get two minutes for boarding on the hit from behind, but the ensuing scrum somehow left the Islanders still shorthanded...and now without their best penalty killer). The non-suspension of Gaborik is ironic, considering that Frans Nielsen was one of the first people to be treated for a concussion under the NHL's new guidelines. While these guidelines are a good step forward for the league, they are meaningless if they do not involve punishments for the type of hits that put Frans down.
Although the Rangers have played a lot of games without Gaborik this season, his suspension -- even if it was for one or two games -- would have been huge as they fight for a playoff spot. Combine that with a lot of questionable calls in the Islanders-Rangers game and it has to be asked if the league is even subtly pulling for a Rangers playoff appearance. The Islanders were penalized seven times in the first period, and two more times early in the second period when the game was still up for grabs.
With the game out of reach for the Rangers in the third, there were still odd calls against the Isles, such as Jack Hillen's "elbow" following a fight which he didn't instigate, and in fact which was instigated by Brandon Dubinsky crosschecking him in the head in apparent retaliation for a clean Hillen hit. If it wasn't a case of the officials feeling that one team deserved -- no, needed -- the benefit of the doubt for its playoff push, then it was certainly an example of one disgracefully poor night of officiating.
Sadly, this isn't the first time this season the integrity of the league was called into question. Earlier this season official emails from Senior VP Colin Campbell (who also handles the league's discipline) were released as part of a trial. Included in those emails was Campbell chastising refs for late game calls against his son and infamously calling an unnamed player who could only be Marc Savard (a former player under Campbell with the Rangers) a "little fake artist." The NHL has announced that it stands behind Campbell 100%, and it seems any momentum to get him fired is long gone.
It's not that hard to quell rumors and questions such as these if the NHL would just announce, as a standard, that such and such an illegal hit is such and such number of games as a base/minimum. Instead it seems like Down Goes Brown's penalty flowchart is just as right today as it was when it was first posted in November of 2009.
Maybe it was just another rough and tumble game between the Rangers and Islanders, with adequate penalties for both sides. But as long as the league is unwilling to reveal the actual thinking behind how suspensions are handed out, these questions are going to linger and hurt the league. And when a late-season game between a lottery team and a big-market team in a desperate playoff push features a curiously lopsided collection of calls...we're going to wonder.