BORN: Rescinded calls show rules need to be changed

Jacob Born

There are two common themes when it comes to playoffs, no matter what the sport is. The first is it’s the best time of the year for that sport. The second is officials swallow their whistles.

Every sports fan knows this, despite what the leagues try to say. Tim Peel, an NHL referee, even admitted to this and was banned from the NHL playoffs, a topic I covered a week ago. Officials want the players to decide it on the field, ice, or court and want to have as little effect on the game as possible. This year, fans are now seeing leagues change officials’s calls in order to have as little effect on the playoff series as possible.

This has been most apparent in the NHL’s first round matchup between the Vancouver Canucks and the Calgary Flames. With just 1:17 remaining in Calgary’s 4-1 victory, Calgary’s Deryk Engelland racked up 2 major penalties, both for fighting, three game misconducts and an instigator. In the playoffs, a player with multiple game misconducts is subject to a suspension, but because all of these game misconducts were different categories of misconducts, he could play in Game 3. But Engelland could still be suspended for Game 3 due to the NHL’s instigator rules.

Rule 46.11 of the NHL Rulebook defines an instigator as any player who initiates the fight, who has verbal or physical threats to any player, who attempts retribution for a previous fight or altercation in a game or season. Any player who fights within the last five minutes of a game shall receive a game misconduct and is subject to a suspension. Rule 46.22 of the NHL Rulebook states a player should be suspended, unless the fight was not related to the score, any previous incident or is “message sending.”

With this criteria, the NHL rescinded Engelland’s instigator penalty, making him available for Game 3 Sunday night. But in Game 3, Alex Burrows of the Canucks was given the same penalty for a fight with Kris Russell of the Calgary Flames. Burrows hit Flame rookie Johnny Goudreau from behind and then fought Russell, who retaliated. Burrows received a boarding minor, a fighting major, an instigator and a game misconduct. Russell only received a fighting major. Monday it was announced Burrows’ instigator was rescinded, meaning no suspension.

Twice in a single series, the NHL decided to change an official’s call so that a player who would not be playing could play. This is not an isolated incident in the NHL, though. The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook was assessed his 16th technical foul of the season against the Indiana Pacers April 12. Westbrook was called for a tech after arguing with an official about a foul and his tech would have forced him to sit out against the Trail Blazers in an big game for the Thunder to make the playoffs. The technical was rescinded, the 36th rescinded technical of the season, and NBA President of Basketball Operations Rob Thorn said rescinding the call had nothing to do with the Thunder being 8th in the Western conference and fighting for a playoff spot.

Regardless of what Thorn says, the NBA is a much better league with Westbrook playing than without, especially when it could have decided the playoff picture (Westbrook scored 36 points in a 101-90 win against the Trail Blazers). In the NHL, Engelland and Burrows are fourth-liners who are not superstars in the league. But the problem is the same – league management is changing calls after the fact to keep players playing.

In both of these cases, the problem is that automatic suspensions via fouls needed to be rescinded. Rather than remove a penalty an official calls, make each foul or penalty subject to supplemental discipline. Change the wording of the rules to say rather than a 16th technical foul or instigator penalty carrying an automatic suspension, these calls be subject to suspension by the league’s department of player safety. These slight changes do not take the whistle out of the officials’ mouths, but rather give the league an extra layer of discipline should the league see fit.

These type of calls carry such implications very infrequently, but it gives leagues a better chance to refine its rules to make them better for everyone. Rather than supersede its officials, the NHL and NBA needs to change their rules in order to better reflect what it wishes from its players and officials. It’s only a slight difference, but doesn’t punish referees for making the tough calls in the leagues’ biggest games.