Beard Season

by Tom Swift

I love the NHL playoffs. This year’s tournament, however, has not, thus far, mid-way through the second round, been schedule-altering, must-see fun.

Why?

My theories:

1. It’s no longer an upset when everyone is doing it. People like the unexpected — I get that. Yet all four division winners were knocked out in the first round, including Tampa Bay, which had one of, if not the, best regular seasons in NHL history. Not only were the Lightning beaten, they were swept.

By contrast, the NBA playoffs, which I do not often watch, are, at present, a prelude to a Finals that features the Golden State Warriors and whichever team they are going to beat for the title this year. In the NBA, there exist dead zones where teams never win and may never win. Note: As I am from Minnesota, I may be jaded in this view.

It is good for a sport when there are great teams, when we see heavy weights go toe-to-toe. This isn’t happening in hockey. If anyone can win at any time — and does — you have to wonder whether the regular season much matters. Certainly, it is devalued. Too much parity is parody.

2. The style of play is drastically different. The NHL regular season of recent vintage is a show of skill unlike any in the sport’s recent history. Fights and flagrant penalties are down significantly in recent years versus historical levels and the sport features many young, jaw-dropping stars. The playoffs are something else, in which tight-checking and a bounce here or there decide games and series. The scores more resemble that of soccer. Which brings us to …

3. Officiating. Fans in every sport it seems have their pitchforks out. They cannot tolerate missed calls and human error. Replay and computerized officiating, in my view, suck the life out of sports. In hockey the problem is less missed one-offs and more a change in referees’s job description. Slashing, cross-checking, elbowing, and other illegal impediments to skillful play are seldom called in the playoffs. And it gets worse the longer a game goes on. By overtime — and there are a lot of overtime games, given the above; the playoffs just had a streak of a full week of at least one OT game each day — refs all but swallow their whistles.

This shift in how the game is arbitrated is wholly accepted. Game announcers don’t even analyze obvious non-call penalties in overtime. It is just taken that a game “should not be decided by the referee” and, well, it is “the same for both teams.” This logic is flawed. First, because so-called non-calls are calls. The refs are influencing outcomes; they are integral parts of the game remaining a game and not a sandlot scrum. Second, because it’s not the same for both teams. If your team is trying to mount a furious comeback you are at a disadvantage if the team protecting the lead can slash you, cross-check you, in some cases outright tackle you with no fear of fallout.

I have been for some years now trying to formulate a theory of sports pertaining to the notion of authenticity — of what makes a league or game less or more pure, of what makes watching it more or less palpably pleasurable. It is language of a feeling I am seeking — a clear sense that we are witnessing the best. (Or, in the case of an upset, witnessing one that is meaningful.) The word integrity is in there somewhere. Like me, this theory, too, is a work-in-progress.

Whatever comes of that, what is certain is that the NHL needs to decide one way or the other: skill game or free-for-all? I know which I would choose. For there is a ceiling on the authenticity that can be felt watching a game in which the role of the referee is something of a prop — akin to that of the ref’s job in professional wrestling.