The NHL Encourages Diving

Diving was one of the biggest hot button topics during the 2013-14 NHL playoffs. It started early with a number of incidents in the first round, and continued to be an issue throughout the rest of the playoffs. Universally, fans want diving in the NHL to be a thing of the past. The only facet in which hockey should aspire to be like soccer is in popularity.

However, with the way the NHL is currently treating diving and embellishment, they are not only tolerating it, they are creating an environment that incentivizes it. The problem of diving is complex because it involves a judgement call by the referees at a high speed where they do not have the perfect angle in slow motion like we do on TV. It’s unlikely that it will ever be completely eradicated from the game, but its impact can be diminished.

Creating the Environment that Encourages Diving

It’s pretty well known that scoring in general in the NHL has been in decline for the past few years. After the 2003-04 lockout, the NHL became much more strict in enforcing clutching, grabbing, and interference penalties in an attempt to bring the NHL out of the Dead Puck Era. In 2005-06, the average numbers of goals per team per game was 3.08. Since then, that number has steadily declined to 2.74 this past season. A significant portion of that can be attributed to referees not being as strict in calling obstruction penalties, leading to fewer power play opportunities.

With scoring and power plays down, players are doing whatever they can to get their team the slightest advantage. It’s not as if players are trying to ruin the integrity of the sport, they are trying to win. Just ask one of the best defensemen of all time in Ray Bourque.

“If [embellishing] gets you a call why not? How many times do you see a guy that gets hit with the stick right around the helmet? And if you don’t react, if you don’t kind of send your head back or something like that, fifty percent of the time the referee won’t call it.”

If referees aren’t going to make the call most of the time, diving in the NHL will continue as players are going to try to sell it so they get the call. Power plays have become increasingly more effective in the past few years, with teams converting at an average of 17.89% compared to 17.68% in 2005-06. When one goal can mean so much, players will do whatever it takes to get it.

The NHL Does Nothing to Punish Divers

Now that we’ve established that the NHL is promoting an environment where diving pays off, let’s take a look at how the league reacts when players dive. On the ice, a player is typically assigned a two minute penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. In some scenarios, the other player involved in the altercation is given a minor penalty as well. So, not a very harsh punishment at all on the ice.

In terms of supplemental discipline, the league rulebook offers the following:

Regardless if a minor penalty for diving / embellishment is called, Hockey Operations will review game videos and assess fines to players or goalkeepers who dive or embellish a fall or a reaction, or who feign injury. See also Rule 28 – Supplementary Discipline. The call on the ice by the Referee is totally independent of supplementary discipline.

The first such incident during the season will result in a warning letter being sent to the player or goalkeeper. The second such incident will result in a one thousand dollar ($1,000) fine. For a third such incident in the season, the player shall be suspended for one game, pending a telephone conversation with the Director of Hockey Operations. For subsequent violations in the same season, the player’s suspension shall double (i.e. first suspension – one game, second suspension – two games, third suspension – four games, etc.) See also Rule 28 – Supplementary Discipline.

To see if this method is effective, we will examine two cases from the 2013-14 NHL season, James Neal and Derek Dorsett. Both players are no stranger to controversy, with Neal being suspended multiple times and Dorsett being a pest that is known for playing on the edge.

In the 2013-14 season, Neal was whistled for diving on three separate occasions, against the Oilers, Coyotes, and Rangers. Only one appears to be captured on Youtube, the infraction against the Rangers below.

diving in the nhl
James Neal (Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

You would be hard pressed to find even a Penguins fan that would not call that an obvious dive. However, it was reported that Neal did not face any supplementary discipline for the incidents, let alone receive a warning from the NHL, which is supposed to happen after the first incident. One important caveat to note is the last sentence in the first paragraph of the rule above, which states “The call on the ice by the Referee is totally independent of supplementary discipline.”

This implies that, in Neal’s case, that the NHL took one of two actions: 1. They reviewed all three of the incidents involving Neal, and determined that none were a dive that merited further action. 2. The NHL didn’t look at them and follow what is written in their rulebook.

Considering the video above, option #2 certainly seems much more likely. There is also the possibility that Neal embellished on other occasions that were not called on the ice, but should have still been reviewed.

Let’s move on to case #2, Derek Dorsett. In the opening round of the 2013-14 playoffs against the Flyers, Dorsett was whistled for two embellishment penalties in a series that was plagued with diving and embellishment on both sides. Despite the two calls made against him, and a few others that weren’t, Dorsett escaped any discipline.

There is no indication that Dorsett, like Neal, even received a warning from the league regarding the calls. As mentioned, no video exists of the dives. However, there is this gem from Scott Hartnell, doing his best Dorsett impression in the penalty box:

Is it possible that the league reviewed all five of the dives that were whistled on the ice, and determined that none were embellishment? Yes. But the chances of that being the case are similar to chances that Colton Orr wins the Rocket Richard next year. What’s really going on is the NHL is simply ignoring the diving problem and not following its own rules.

Does Bettman Care About Diving in the NHL?

Considering all of the above, the only way to answer that question is no. The league has made it clear that they want to increase scoring, and in an ass-backwards way, tolerating diving does that by creating more power plays and 4-on-4 play where goals are scored more frequently. However, if the league just instructed referees to ramp up the calls on obstruction like they did in 2005-06, it would eliminate the need for players to dive, and increase scoring by a larger amount that tolerating diving does.

Instead of promoting the environment that breeds diving, the league could eliminate the environment, reduce the black eye it leaves on the game, and increase scoring by properly calling penalties.