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May 11, 2006

Deep Sigh Diving

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- Back in 2000, Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated did a short 24-player survey to determine who the most prolific diver in Major League Soccer was.

The runaway winner was Diego Serna of the now-defunct Miami Fusion; one anonymous player responded to the question by stating that "Diego Serna is the Greg Louganis of our league, bar none."

Luckily for us, Wahl was a sports journalist and not a blogger, so he actually confronted Serna with the slanderous news about being named the league's top embellisher. And for once in his career, Serna didn't take it lying down.

"If I was diving, they wouldn't have called the fouls," he said. "I'm smart enough to know that I don't want to get a reputation for taking dives, because then I'll be a marked man. All your survey does is tell me that these players need to work harder on their defense."

In fact, Serna said the accusation was an insult to his entire profession: "Taking dives is anti-soccer."

In a perfect world — you know, the one where all seven games of the Stanley Cup Finals are on NBC and the Islanders are playing in Las Vegas next season — diving would be considered "anti-hockey," too; but flailing around like a paramecium after every bump or hook has been accepted over the decades as "drawing a penalty."

Of course, the irony in the NHL is that diving is illegal, earning a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.

The league has been vocal about getting rid of "serial diving" in the regular season; a few years ago, it literally distributed a list of those constant floppers to referees and team locker rooms.

When the rules changes were ushered in with the new CBA, one of them clearly targeted diving as being a problem in the sport; most likely because the competition committee knew that draconian enforcement of interference and hooking would lead to players recreating the goldfish-out-of-water scene from the end of that Faith No More video, trying to draw penalties on nearly every shift.

Fines and suspensions loomed for players that were identified by Hockey Operations for having embellished a fall or feigned an injury. The move was met with applause from hockey fans, as an NHL Fan Association poll showed 44% of respondents "Strongly Agreed" with the rule — 14% more than "Strongly Agreed" with the implementation of the shootout.

There's no telling how many players were handed down warnings or fined for diving this season because the NHL keeps the names and numbers under wraps.

Never underestimate the league's shortsightedness: publicly calling out these cheaters would have embarrassed them and, perhaps, eliminated diving from their bag of tricks. Yet the NHL wanted their names kept out of the papers. It's the same sort of logic Major League Baseball used for the last 10 years of its steroid policy.

One player that copped to having been fined for diving was Little Mary Sunshine, a.k.a. Sean Avery of the LA Kings.

"How can a guy sitting in an office in New York determine if you dived or not by watching a tape," Avery asked the Los Angeles Times at the time of the incident. "They don't know if you had a bad ankle or torn bursa sac or something." (And really, how many times has a fan come close to calling out a player for diving and then held back in consideration of his bursa sac?)

Avery didn't have a chance to ply his pathetic trade in the postseason, and perhaps that's to his benefit: Commissioner Gary Bettman came out strong at the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, directly threatening referees who "swallow their whistles"” with unemployment. The "new" NHL playoffs would, in his mind, have the same number of power plays as the regular season (as in "too many").

Obstruction, hooking and holding have been called throughout the postseason by jittery referees.

Diving? Not so much. Through Wednesday night's conference semifinals, there have been five diving calls reported in the box scores over the course of 56 games and 22 overtime sessions. Only one diving call has been made in 43 periods of conference semifinal hockey. The guilty parties, according to the box scores:

Buffalo's Derek Roy, Game 3 vs. Philadelphia

Anaheim's Sean O'Donnell, Game 7 vs. Calgary

Detroit's Brett Lebda, Game 3 vs. Edmonton

Carolina's Martin Gerber (!), Game 1 vs. Montreal

Ottawa's Patrick Eaves, Game 3 vs. Buffalo

Are we to believe that the NHL's crackdown on obstruction during the regular season didn't lead to its elimination from the postseason, but its crackdown on diving actually worked?

Of course not.

Diving has been a pandemic in this postseason, in nearly every series. It was comical hearing announcer John Davidson lash out at Carolina diver Justin Williams in Game 2 of the Devils series, only to bite his tongue and add a little nuance to his comments lest he actually be honest and call a dive "a dive." Maybe he was worried about Williams's bursa sac…

Avalanche winger Alex Tanguay told the Dallas Morning News that diving is up because "the referees want to call more, so the guys are going to be a lot more aware when they have a stick on them. It's just the nature of sports. If you can get away with something, you'll try to take advantage of that."

The question is: Why are they allowed to get away with it? Diving wasn't just called in the regular-season, it was reinforced with monetary damages. Has either policy carried over to the postseason?

Despite all the verbiage about not swallowing whistles during the playoffs, referees clearly don't want to influence these games too much. That's why penalties are about as rare in overtime as Marty Brodeur victories, and that's why diving — the most subjective call a ref has to make — isn't being called at all.

Go back and look at the players flagged for diving thus far this postseason. Notice anything? Like, for example, that none of them will be featured in a "My NHL" ad campaign any time soon? Or that none of their total ice times will be kept on a running counter at the top of the screen? Far be it from me to traffic in black helicopter conspiracy theories, but are we to believe that none of the top 50 players in the postseason have taken a single dive?

Back to the root of the problem, which is that diving doesn't carry the severity of other penalties. When a dive is called, it negates a powerplay but it's never called as a standalone penalty: whatever caused the dive is also flagged, so the worst that happens are matching minors.

The idea has been floated that diving should carry a double-minor or a 10-minute misconduct penalty; as if there's a chance in hell these referees who don't have the cojones to call diving in the playoffs will begin to pluck embellishers off the ice for half the period. There are only two constants in hockey, my friends: Peter Forsberg on injured reserve, and referees having a spine like a bowl of lime Jell-O.

The bottom line is that there have been as many penalties for diving in the 2006 playoffs as there have been for instigating. How ironic: a pathetic exploitation of the rules has been called as many times as the penalty that restricts players from policing against that exploitation in an "old school" way.

And they wonder why diving is on the increase.


Thanks to reader John Williams for pointing out his hilarious goof from online ticket broker, in its e-mail newsletter:

"The Flyers took a big step toward Stanley Cup glory last week by eliminating the Sabres. But can Simon Gagne and company survive the next three rounds of the NHL Playoffs? Get your tickets from StubHub, and find out – live!"

Maybe they're talking about next postseason...

...Carolina's Ray Whitney is evidently known as "The Wizard." How appropriate, considering that Harry Potter is going to backstop the Hurricanes to the conference finals.

...Lance Armstrong has filmed a "My Stanley Cup" ad for the NHL which will debut this weekend. In it, he says, "No one remembers who came in second. There is no immortality for second best. No champagne bath . . . No engraving." Well, unless you're Jean-Sebastien Giguere, that is.

...OLN has given fans close to seven hours of hockey on most nights, and should be applauded for it. Year One has been a success, but if the network comes back next season with the same inconsistent camera work and tedious studio analysts in support of the surprisingly good Bill Clement, let the backlash begin. Two pieces of advice for the Comcast boys: watch TNT's basketball studio show, which is the best in sports, and steal liberally; and hire Brett Hull to join the team at any cost, in order to have your own Charles Barkley.

...Speaking of OLN, Andy Baggot of the Wisconsin State Journal had high praise for hockey on television in relation to the sports competition. "The NBA is a night at the symphony. It is dancing girls, unceasing music, courtside celebrities and arguably the greatest athletes in the world. The NHL is a night at the rock concert. It is Zamboni drivers, a relentless pace, a savage atmosphere and arguably the toughest athletes in the world." He went on to break down the two sports' postseasons, giving the nod (naturally) to the NHL.

...Finally, Reason No. 1,454,988 Hockey Is Different Than Golf: John Daly's physique makes him "a heroic everyman" the fans love to support, while Keith Tkachuk's physique earned him a suspension for being "physically unable to perform."

Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for and the Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.



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