NHL's replay credibility problem, Khabibulin's slide, more
Many readers wrote in to complain about the Capitals' overturned goal
I expected Nikolai Khabibulin to be a bad free agent signing, and I was right
The death of an Olympic luger raises a haunting What-If scenario for hockey
I don't have room to get into individual letters here, but a surprising number of you wrote regarding my column on the Capitals being jobbed in a controversial "no-goal" ruling at Montreal in which the Canadiens ended Washington's 14-game win streak.
What surprised me most was the number who wrote not to argue or defend the call, but to point out that their favorite team had been the victim of a ruling they simply couldn't agree with. Some of that is understandable. Some people don't know or understand the rules of replay while others see their heroes being wronged no matter what the rules say and a handful simply don't condone anything the NHL does when it comes to their team.
Still, the sheer volume of mail indicates that the NHL has a replay credibility problem in some markets. I believe it comes in part because the on-ice officials don't do a good job of explaining why goals are overturned.
Regarding the play in question, the on-ice officials never explained why Alexander Ovechkin's goal was disallowed even though the rule guide demands they do so. The NHL apparently also leaves too much to interpretation. In the case of the play in question, the rules say the officials have the right to call goaltender interference, but don't necessarily have to call it.
Why? If Ovechkin interfered on the play, that's goaltender interference. But no one on ice made that call. If there's no interference, how can there be no goal? You simply can't have it both ways and expect to have a public who believes you are playing by the rules.
The prevailing sentiment regarding Ovechkin was he made a clean hit that caused the puck to be separated from Montreal defenseman Hal Gill. My argument was that since it was a clean play and the puck clearly crossed the goal line, it was a clean score. It wasn't Ovechkin's fault that goaltender Carey Price was already down, the result of his own actions on a previous shot.
There is an interpretation, one of many regarding Rule 69 -- goaltender interference -- that says when "an attacking player makes incidental contact with the goalkeeper at the same time a goal is scored," the correct call is to disallow the goal. "The official in his judgment may call a Minor penalty on the attacking player." No penalty is mandated here.
Of the 15 some scenarios the league cites, it would appear that the following should apply: "A defensive player directs the puck into his own net while an attacking player is standing in the goal crease. The attacking player does not affect the goalkeeper's ability to make the save." The illustration goes on to say that in such a case, the goal is allowed.
There is no perfect description of the Ovechkin scenario in the book, but given that his hit on Gill was deemed to be a clean play (no penalty called), was initially outside the crease and that the puck went "off the defensive player into his own net," the goal should stand.
The view from here remains the same: The NHL got it wrong and compounded the mistake by not explaining why the goal was disallowed.
Khabibulin's rocky road
It may have slipped under your radar, but Oilers goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, whose time in Edmonton has been pretty much a disaster since signing a free-agent contact there last season, was recently arrested and charged with driving under the influence and speeding. It's yet another chapter in a disappointing season for someone who was signed in hopes of bringing the Oilers back to playoff contention this spring. That wasn't going to happen given that Khabibulin is through for the season after having recently undergone back surgery.
Like my colleague Darren Eliot, I had my share of misses in preseason picks, but I did select Khabibulin as most likely to disappoint. There are players who can be a dead-lock cinch to be good free-agent signings, but Khabibulin has seldom been one of them. True, he won a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004, but he's always been a high-maintenance player who is at his best in a contract year and something less than that most of the rest of the time.
Back injuries and speeding and DUI can happen to anyone, but speeding and DUI charges can usually be avoided simply by caring enough to not allow them to happen. Khabibulin has not been convicted (his next appearance date is Feb. 26), but a player who has the good sense to know better, never puts himself in a situation where he even needs to mount a defense.
A chilling scenario
I have long speculated that there will come a time when circumstances such as a collision involving a blow to the head will cause an on-ice death in hockey. I, and many others close to the game, have also speculated on how such a tragedy might be handled by a league or organizing body. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee (VANOOC), and International Luge Federation (ILF) appear to have a blueprint.
It's sad, it's hollow and it's working far better than anyone has a right to imagine.
You are by now familiar with the disturbing death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili. Though no official cause has been released, it's obvious that speed and mass interacting with what was essentially an immovable object led to his demise. I'm not trying place blame. It's only fair to have a thorough investigation address exactly what went wrong. But it is worth noting how the death was handled, and difficult to not come to the conclusion that there has been an effort to blame the victim and defend the track's design as well as the decisions that were made despite on-record comments regarding its dangers.
Consider: Everyone from IOC President Jacques Rogge on down expressed regret and remorse, but after addressing the issue at a hastily-arranged press conference, Rogge followed Step One regarding handling a crisis. He extended his sorrow to the family of the deceased, ignored any question regarding blame, and moved on to open the Games, never revisiting the issue. That's near perfect execution of crisis management.
If you want an issue to go away, stop talking about it as soon as possible.
That opened the door to Step Two: blame the victim. Despite statements from a lugers and sliders that the track was inherently dangerous and producing speeds deemed excessive even by the sport's most experienced people, the head of the ILF, in a joint statement with VANOOC, said "there was no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track."
Not that there was no "evidence." There was no "indication" despite the fact that the athletes were saying well before the Games that the track was inherently dangerous due to its design, location and speed. Days before Kumaritashvili's death, sliders had tagged the turn where he lost control of his sled the "50-50" --one so difficult to navigate that they felt they had a 50-50 chance of getting out of it alive.
The two officIal groups also stated that Kumaritashvili "did not compensate properly to make correct entrance into Curve 16." That may be true, but they produced no evidence. Even if he made a mistake, mistakes happen in virtually every run and almost never result in death. Perhaps more importantly, the officials did not mention why a steel post was so close to a point where a slider exiting the course might hit it.
Some athletes protested, one going so far as to ask whether they were nothing more than "experimental lemmings", but athletes normally don't raise much complaint, especially when they're up against the people who have a great deal of control over their future.
That leads to Step Three: the appearance of reacting without admitting blame or a problem. The various committees moved the men's start line down to the women's, and the women's down to the junior or intermediate line, where most people who want to experience a luge track take Lesson No. 1. They also released video of workers wrapping the steel beams. It seemed abundantly clear that the padding wouldn't prevent a football player from getting injured if he fell into it, let alone a body moving at 90 miles per hour, but the cosmetic changes moved the focus to the next stage.
Within 24 hours, fewer than it took to get the deceased back to his homeland, the tragic event was effectively in the past. The Games were moving on and the lugers (scared and grumbling) were back on the track. A 21-year-old athlete will be buried in his homeland on Saturday. The luge events will be over by then, a great many of the people involved will have moved on, other events will be at the forefront, and much of the world will have forgotten.
So the game plan to deal with the deepest kind of tragedy has not only been written, it has been executed. Thank, if that's the right word, the IOC, VANOOC and ILF. And so we conclude with a chilling question:
What happens when -- after months, if not years of concern and talk about the dangers of headshots in hockey -- a player, perhaps in the NHL, dies from one?