The NHL & the Problem With Diving: If You Ain't Cheatin', You Ain't Tryin'

A foul is a foul, unless of course it's the wrong kind of foul. So what's the right kind? Why is there a distinction?

Maybe diving isn't so bad. Five words in, and you're already thinking I'm an idiot. A great start, I know. In my defense, it's not like it was an easy sentence to write. Even now I'm cowering in a dark room, listening between keystrokes for signs the Old School Monster is about to kick down my door. But I'm not crazy. I promise.

This deviant line of thinking began with the start of the 95-96 season, and a sandpaper winger by the name of Grant Marshall. An odd place, I realize, considering he wore the Star at the height of Mo's flapping jersey, Hull's swagger, and Eddie's outright insanity. Also considering he'd score 9 goals that season. Surely my attention should have been elsewhere. It wasn't. Grant was one of my favorite players.

Blame my father, who had raised me on tales of the hard men. Football players initially, but by this point he'd learned enough for a few puck heads to filter into his examples. Dad taught me to watch the rugged types, the team-first guys expected to fight their way into the lineup by playing just this side of total recklessness. He also introduced concepts like the hard foul, and the good penalty.

Together we'd watch in rapt attention, then erupt as Grant stapled another helpless defender to the end boards. So what if he was half a second too late? These were the clutch-and-grab 90s, after all. Tactically, it made sense to play with an edge. With every chip, slash, and poke, Grant created more space for Mike and Joe.

A few years later, we lionized Derian Hatcher for crushing Jeremy Roenick, and considered his suspension well worth the long-term protective benefits it produced. Dad was even magnanimous, and begrudgingly accepted Mike Peca's hack-job during Dallas' magical run to the Cup. Mo was hurt, and it wasn't like we were going to take it easy on their guys.

Good fouls. A part of the game. No matter the team had been upset the year before and Derian's hit took our captain out for much of the first round. He'd done a very particular job, and it was the rest of the team's responsibility to pick him up. This is when I learned the magical excuse: "he's not that type of player." Meaning so long as he was one of our guys, I got to overlook the trail of teeth leading into the penalty box.

But weren't penalties bad? By the time Steve Ott began banging bodies I'd begun to wonder. Enter Sean Avery, and the era of the pest was in full swing. Suddenly I was reading about how he and Ott were going to form some kind of super team. Like Batman and Extra Batman. Now I was really confused. I hated Sean Avery, everybody did. He was a trash player, a guy who had committed unforgivable sins. Why was Hully crowing about how complimentary their skill sets were?

Avery was... a diver. For the first time that nasty word began to infiltrate my hockey watching life. Divers, I learned, were heartless, flopping buffoons. They were soft. The more I watched, the more I listened, the more I bristled. Apparently, players like Avery lacked the respect to properly slash a guy. They took falls instead of teeth. More importantly, their play was considered damaging to the team. They played the game the wrong way.

Wait, there was a wrong way? Wasn't that just losing?

Another confession: I love Mike Ribiero. I can't help it. I love the skill, and right alongside it, the attitude. He was slick, greasy even. Some guys play with a sneer, he played with a smirk. When he began to dangle, defenders tensed up. They hesitated, same as when Grant Marshall used to come thundering down towards the boards. Though he used a different method to achieve his goals, Ribiero was every bit the handful, and I loved it. I had an epiphany.

A minor penalty is two minutes in the box. That's it. There's no fifteen second tack on for embellishment (for extra time you have to get violent). Same two minutes, yet we accept a slash and consider a dive loathsome. To me, a dive is no worse than a hit half a second after the whistle, or a friendly face-wash.

Not every player can be Grant Marshall, or Derian Hatcher. A dive levels the playing field. It's an artist's tool, a way for skilled players to influence officials, unsettle defencemen, and create an extra half yard of ice. It's illegal, certainly, but that's the referee's problem. Players play to win. They hustle, they cheat, and as fans, we love it. To claim otherwise is to create a double standard, no less ridiculous than hating the cross check while excusing the slash.