The NHL is a bit like high school, just with exceptionally wealthy, immaculately tailored students and a higher incidence of iffy tattoos.
Transgressing institutional norms gets you a trip to the office. Cliques are quickly formed; reputations take on a disproportionate importance.
In that sense, the surprise is not that Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban was fined $2,000 this week for a second embellishment offence (the league’s polite term for diving), it’s that four other players were publicly shamed before him.
Subban is a great many things – a Norris Trophy winner, an Olympic champion, one of the league’s best-paid defencemen, definitely it’s most magnetic personality.
He also has a rep as a bit of an on-ice thespian; it’s a tag that’s hard to scrape off.
He is also far from the only player to whom an unflattering label has been affixed.
In general, NHLers take a vaguely fatalistic view of the way they are perceived.
“It’s something I’ve learned … you build a reputation and it doesn’t go away,” said winger Brendan Gallagher, another Habs player who is often subjected to careful referee scrutiny as the club’s resident net-crasher.
“Regardless of how you got it, whether you agree with it or not, it’s going to stick with you and you’re going to have to deal with that. I don’t think it’s right, necessarily, I think the rules are the rules and they should be called for a reason. But it’s just a fact … going into games we have scouting reports on other teams, and I guess officials are the same way. They have scouting reports on players and they react that way. It’s preparation.”
Added teammate Max Pacioretty: “The thing that worries me about it is that people assume the worst in a player, and assume he has the wrong intentions. Often that’s not the case.”
Pacioretty pointed toward Gallagher, saying “he doesn’t dive at all, but maybe it looks that way because he’s battling hard, he’s smaller, he’s getting knocked over.”
That the NHL has decided to wage war on diving – a curious priority given the epidemic of goalies being steamrolled – is surely a product of the game’s old-school competitive culture of honourable gamesmanship and not “showing up” officials.
It is also a doomed endeavour.
Soccer has tried for years to address its simulation problem and basketball has targeted floppers. Neither has especially succeeded. Basically every contact sport in which referees are involved must learn to live with athletes who will happily game the system to gain an edge.
As former NHLer and now television analyst Gilbert Delorme idly mused at the Habs’ practice: “You think no one ever dove in the old days?”
The league tolerates many forms of cheating – faceoffs are the obvious example – and encourages others even as it frowns on them.
Quite simply, there is a reward for exaggerating to draw a penalty. Scoring in the NHL is essentially stagnant despite continuing efforts to inject more offence.
Through 759 contests this year the average tally has been 2.75 goals, up fractionally from 2.74 last year but well down from the 3.08 after the 2005 lockout and the 4.01 in 1982 when the Edmonton Oilers were filling the net for fun.
At the same time, the average number of power-play opportunities is down (even if the per-game average of power-play goals is slightly up)
“There are nights where they kind of force you to embellish … it’s kind of automatic, if you’re getting hooked and you don’t think the ref is seeing it, you’re trying to sell it so he sees it,” said winger Brandon Prust, who was whistled for embellishment earlier in the year and is wary of adding to his total. “I know I’m getting fined the next time,” he said.
There is an irony to the Subban decision.
The first time this season Subban was penalized for embellishment, he had been zestily pitchforked in the nether bits by noted miscreant Brad Marchand of Boston; the penalty was later rescinded.
In the second he fell – while turning away on one skate – after a light cross-check from behind by Chris Kreider of the New York Rangers.
Kreider took vigorous exception to Subban falling over, which can happen when ice and skates are involved. Perhaps he would have been more understanding if Subban had barrelled into a goaltender while losing his footing, as Kreider does with alarming regularity.
Neither penalty was egregious, but an incident on Jan. 6 involving Subban and Tampa’s Jason Garrison was a truly objectionable bit of poor sportsmanship. Though the on-ice officials evidently missed it, Subban literally dove to the ice after feeling Garrison put his stick between his legs.
Some of the received hockey wisdom about Subban is deserved; he occasionally exaggerates in order to influence the refs (he does it far less than in the past). This does not differentiate him from his peers.
But when 6-foot-9, 270-pound Zdeno Chara tumbles theatrically to the ice after having his sweater tugged by the much smaller Lars Eller, as happened in 2013, it’s a penalty, not a dive.
Chara, you’ll have surmised, is not That Kind of Player.
Subban evidently is. And the Habs are, apparently, That Kind of Team (tune in to a Bruins broadcast and they will helpfully inform you of this).
The barrage of accusations from Massachusetts, New York, and elsewhere has been effective.
Subban has been assessed 24 minor penalties this year, tied for fifth in the NHL; it’s the same total as his former world junior teammate Marchand, a gifted diver who memorably cartwheeled to the ice last season after a trip, and promptly grabbed the wrong leg.
Marchand hasn’t yet been fined this year, but it seems inevitable he will be.
His reputation precedes him.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the NHL did not take a Jan. 6 incident involving P.K. Subban and Tampa's Jason Garrison into account in its decision to fine the former for diving. He was in fact issued a formal warning afterward. An embellishment penalty earlier in the season was ultimately rescinded by the league. He was subjected to a fine because the Jan. 29 embellishment penalty followed the warning. This version has been updated.Report Typo/Error