Welcome to the first in what will hopefully will become a weekly-ish column about various sports topics called….well, “Several Random Words About Sports.”
I initially thought about going with “Several Hundred Words About Sports,” but I figured there might be some weeks where this column has fewer than several hundred words, like for example, if Wednesday’s Game 7 ends with a Bobby Orr-level iconic goal and next week’s column is just “BERGERON!” in 72-point font.
Or whoever scores it, but c’mon, it’d probably be Bergeron.
Column naming conventions notwithstanding, this week’s topic stays on the subject of the Stanley Cup Finals and specifically, the trip/slash/armed robbery of Noel Acciari by Tyler Bozak late in Game 5 and the resulting firestorm surrounding the lack of a call there.
For anyone that did not watch that moment live, you can see it again here on Youtube. During the play, the puck is coming around the boards and Acciari is backtracking from the blue line to play it as Bozak and Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo swoop in from behind the net in an attempt to play the puck as well.
The puck moves just out of Acciari’s reach as Bozak makes his move for the puck. In the process, Bozak’s stick falls short of the puck and instead impacts the back of Acciari’s right ankle. Simultaneously, Bozak’s right leg slams into the back of Acciari’s left leg as it appears Bozak potentially grabs Acciari to push him down while tripping him.
Referee Kelly Sutherland has an okay, but not perfect, view of the play as Carlo is partially obstructing his field of vision.
At this point, I want to put in a disclaimer: I am not a hockey referee. I can’t even skate, although I have officiated sporting events at much, much lower levels of athletics than this (more on that another day, perhaps.)
If we look again at that call and go into the 2018-2019 NHL Rulebook, what should the call have been?
In Rule 61, slashing is defined as “the act of a player swinging his stick at an opponent, whether contact is made or not.” However, since Bozak was trying to reach the puck, an argument can be made that he wasn’t swinging his stick at Acciari, but Acciari just happened to be there.
Did Bozak’s body make this into a very discreet slewfoot? According to Rule 52, slew-footing is either a.) “the act of a player using his leg or foot to knock or kick an opponent’s feet from under him”; b.) “pushing an opponent’s upper body backward with an arm or elbow and at the same time with a forward motion of his leg” or; c.) “kicking the opponent’s feet from under him, causing him to fall violently to the ice.”
It appears that the first of those three definitions did occur. However, much of that moment was Bozak and how much was from Acciari? How much of that moment was due to momentum versus malicious intent? And the prescribed penalty for a slewfoot is a match penalty, which means Bozak would be gone for the rest of the night, possibly in Game 6 as well, and he’d get a fine.
Okay, how about a trip? Rule 57 states, “a player shall not place the stick, knee, foot, arm, hand or elbow in such a manner that causes his opponent to trip or fall.” However, Rule 57 also states that accidental trips that occur simultaneously with a completed play will not be penalized.
Was that trip an accident due to Bozak’s over-aggressive positioning or did he intend to trip Acciari? Or, did Acciari see Bozak coming out of the corner of his eye and know that slightly moving into Bozak’s leg could have gotten a call? Is Bozak guilty of not taking Acciari into greater account as he moved toward the puck? Is that his responsibility?
At that moment in the game, everybody in New England, myself included, was yelling at the TV. With a few days to cool off, I can’t speak for anyone else, but my frustration remains, even if it’s evolved from that seemingly underhanded goal that followed just moments later.
Sutherland is one of the world’s best hockey referees, but even he makes mistakes. He consulted with his fellow officials after the play, all of which happened in a split second. However, video review is only available for goal decisions and the play concluded well before the goal was scored. Taking those rules into account and the ambiguity of that moment, Sutherland may not have had an option that could provide resolution to both sides.
It’s simultaneously frustrating for the Bruins, particularly for Acciari. In that moment, Acciari could have been seriously injured, significantly impacting the series and more importantly, Acciari’s quality of life off the ice as well.
Heck, you could even say it was frustrating for the Blues. One could see from their expressions after the goal that they lucked out there on the lack of a call. Game 5 was hard-fought and it’s unfair to have one moment discount the effort from an entire night of effort.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing was the lack of clarification from the NHL itself, with NHL senior vice president and director of officiating Stephen Walkom only stating that the league does not make statements on calls within games, giving the appearance that the league is somehow implicit in this dark moment.
Everyone involved in hockey, and all sports for that matter, need to do a much better job educating and explaining the decisions of officials to players, coaches and fans. What route that takes is up for discussion, but it needs to happen. Obfuscation just adds to distrust in officials at all levels, which in turns makes sports less safe for everyone involved.
Officials should never be the determining factor in any sporting event, and sometimes they do make legitimately bad calls, but an error made with solid reasoning is often better than a correct decision made without the understanding of those it affects.