Skip to main content
opinion

Although Calgary and Blake Coleman were robbed by a bad call, they still won with Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers moving on to the next round.Sergei Belski/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

One of the great features of the NHL is that its rules make no sense. When the laws of physics and/or logic don’t apply, you can steer matters toward any outcome you want.

We saw these unnatural forces at work in Thursday’s deciding game of the Battle of Alberta.

Calgary should have won that game. The rule that robbed it of the winning goal – that “a goal cannot be scored by an attacking player who uses a distinct kicking motion to propel the puck into the net” – is a terribly written rule.

Battle of Alberta over as Edmonton Oilers take 4-1 series victory over Calgary Flames

What’s a “distinct” kicking motion? Can’t you just say “You can’t kick the puck into the net?” Or is that too simple?

“Distinct” gets people going over slo-mo replays like they’re watching the Zapruder film. A kick is a kick. What Calgary’s Blake Coleman was doing as his foot tapped the puck was no kick. You need to draw your foot back before a kick, which requires balance. Coleman spent the whole time he was heading into the net going ass over teakettle. What he did was fall into the puck. His foot just got there first.

And why were we talking about kicking at all? The puck was on its way in whether Coleman touched it or not. Who cares if he distinctly kicked it? It was already a goal.

And this is when you decide to get your OED out and start parsing the precise meaning of words within the rule? With six minutes left in a potential series clincher?

Afterward, you’d have expected Coleman to come out raging. But he knows complaining about NHL officiating is like pushing the tides.

“I don’t know,” Coleman shrugged when asked what he thought. “I don’t think I understand the rule.”

Don’t worry, pal. No one does.

But without suggesting the fix was in (and also not not suggesting it), that ridiculous decision set in motion a series of events that gave everyone something they want.

Let us say for the sake of argument that Calgary had won this series. Great for it. And no one else.

But Edmonton winning? Now we’re talking.

After years of pining, the city has a team worth caring about. The NHL has a controversy that gets people talking (hockey’s No. 1 marketing mission). The Oilers prove themselves worthy of their best player. And hockey’s top salesman gets a chance to expand his territory into America.

Even Calgary gets something out of it. Hockey series come and go. But a really great grudge is forever.

Before it ended, you already knew how it was going to go down.

In the overtime period, Connor McDavid got the puck in an awkward position, levitated between two guys and flipped it into the net. Only McDavid can move sideways on skates without turning in the direction he intends to go. It’s as though his feet swivel.

Everything in McDavid’s career up until this point has been Summer Stock. Now he’s one stop from Broadway (maybe even actual Broadway). This is an undeniably good outcome for hockey writ large.

It’s almost seven years since McDavid was drafted. It feels like 17.

A player such as McDavid is meant to be shown off. Instead, the NHL’s had him tarped in the garage for all that time. Has there ever been a more anonymous best in the world? At anything? Given the connected age we live in, it seems a sort of miracle that the NHL has managed to hide McDavid so well.

I would wager that if you showed his mugshot to 100 random Americans, five would have an inkling, 85 would have no clue and the other 10 would ask you to marry them so they can escape to Canada.

This is an inexplicable failure of marketing, ambition and team building. McDavid’s done his part. Everyone around him fell down on the job.

Now they’re finally putting something together on his behalf.

A lot of column inches have been spilled about how remarkable McDavid has been this postseason. The top three scorers in the playoffs are the three guys on McDavid’s line – himself, Leon Draisaitl and Evander Kane.

Kane’s goal-scoring rate has tripled since he got to Edmonton. You think he just figured out he’s left-handed? Or do you think maybe the company he keeps has something to do with it?

McDavid isn’t just the straw that stirs the drink. He’s the drink.

What’s not been discussed as much is how much peril there was in this moment.

In playoffs past, either the Oilers stank, or McDavid was mediocre, or the goalie was trying to make saves with his head. There was always an excuse when the Oilers went out. Not a good excuse, but something that made vague sense.

This year, there was no excuse. McDavid is playing out of his mind. He has decent backup. Even the goalie’s been okay.

What if all that happened and the Oilers still lost? That would suggest an insurmountable structural problem with the Oilers or – much worse – a weird personal lack in McDavid. If the best in the game can’t win when he’s playing his best, then what does “best” actually mean? That would have been existential crisis time.

No sport can thrive if its biggest stars aren’t seen. Look at the way baseball has buried Mike Trout under US$426-million in Anaheim. Wouldn’t it be better for all concerned – Trout especially – if he made half as much and was twice as visible?

McDavid was becoming Trout. He’d passed the point in his career where you could still say he was arriving. He arrived ages ago and has been standing around waiting to be noticed since then.

So it was generally agreed that it was long past time to get hockey’s best player onto hockey’s best stages.

You see the problem. McDavid had to finally arrive. That meant Calgary had to go.