In two games, today, in the NHL, the refereeing system broke down.
In one game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Winnipeg Jets, Anton Stralman threw a questionable hit to the head on Jets semi-star Bryan Little.
After the hit, Paul Maurice was furious at the fact that a two minute minor penalty was the only call assessed on Stralman. So furious that a staring match ensued at the end of the period. This culminated in Maurice stepping out onto the bench to land a swear-laden tirade at the refs, a tirade that cost Maurice the third period. He was dismissed from the game by the referee, who later smirked at the utilization of his well, unique, powers.
Incident number two – the St. Louis Blues take on the Los Angeles Kings. For this kind of game between two rough and tumble teams, with a rivalry no less, you would expect that the referees would swallow the whistles and let the men compete. Instead Francis Charron calls a series of phantom calls in the first period, and then misses egregious penalties and subsequently calls phantom calls to make up for it.
You couldn’t help but feel that the referee was, if not determining the winner, certainly determining the course of the game.
As for the game between the Jets and the Lightning, the absence of Maurice seemed not to deter their 4-goal comeback to tie the game. Certainly this shows that the refs’ influence on the game, when negative, is not just about handicapping one team or another. The actions of the referee simply change the complexion of the game entirely.
Referees should be in the game to call the most egregious penalties and ensure the safety of the players, not necessarily in that order. They should not change a game. Tonight, the referees in the games at St. Louis and Tampa Bay respectively confused the players with respect to what would be penalized and what would not, and failed to protect players in the course of the game by enforcing the NHL’s policy against collisions to the head.
If you want to follow the referees night over night, please check this link below which gives a detailed summary of what games the referees are playing in and how they rank in terms of penalties called.
When I first sat down to create this blog with my co-writer, I was very positive and encouraged him to write whatever he wanted, despite protestations that he wanted this blog to stay my own. I only gave him one restriction which I told him plainly: he could not write any fluff. I am going to break that rule today.
Every season there seems to be an unsigned prospect that captures the attention of the hockey world and captivates fans of all teams. These players are of course highly valued due to essentially being a free asset and thus teams tend to fight over them rather aggressively. In years past, players such as Justin Schultz (signed with Edmonton) and Jiri Sekac (signed with Montreal) have occupied this position of honor. Some of these players have went on to have fantastic careers, while others quickly faded back into obscurity their fifteen minutes of fame over with long ago.
One name though captivated more than the rest. His name was Swedish prospect Fabian Brunnstrom. After failing to be drafted, Brunnstrom impressed greatly in the following two seasons including a strong 37 point season in the Swedish Elite League as a 22 year old rookie in 2007-2008. Scouts viewed him quite favorably even going so far as to compare his game to Marian Hossa. His skill with the puck and size (6.01 Ft) in addition to his youth made him an extremely attractive asset. Videos such as this one captivated fans and soon Brunnstrom was the talk of the town in most online hockey communities. Indeed, many NHL teams started lining up to sign the Swede giving him fantastic leverage. In addition to commanding the max salary for an entry-level contract, he also was able to demand a roster spot on the NHL squad. Normally, players have to play a few years in the minors before even thinking about making the NHL, but such was the demand for this player that most teams were willing to accept the arrangement.
Eventually, Brunnstrom signed on with the Dallas Stars in the summer of 2008 and everyone in the hockey world thought that Dallas had scored a massive coup. These thoughts didn’t go away when Brunnstrom had the debut of a lifetime. In his very first NHL game, he scored three goals displaying all the skill and talent that scouts had fawned over the past few months. The buzz seemingly was real.
Sadly, unlike the fairly tales this story did not have a happy ending. That first game was the high watermark of his NHL career. He did go on to have a very successful rookie season securing 29 points, but failed to come close to this total ever again. This was compounded by injury problems that limited him to 55 games in 2008-2009 and 52 games in 2009-2010 split between the NHL and AHL. In that season, Brunnstrom secured just 11 points in 44 games causing the Stars to demote the talented youngster. By the 2010-2011 season, he was gone traded to the Toronto Marlies in order to save money on his expensive contract. The whole season he played in the AHL putting up decent numbers of 35 points in 72 games.
His contract was not renewed. In a last ditch effort to stay in the NHL, he accepted an invitation to tryout with the Detroit Red Wings. This was ironic considering that the Wings had tried very hard to acquire Brunnstrom when he first crossed the pond. It was figured that the Wing’s skating style would suit Brunnstrom. Indeed, the Wings thought enough of him to sign him to a professional contract. Unfortunately, after only five games with the Wings collecting one assist, he was sent down to the AHL. Again, he only played about half the season due to injuries collecting 35 points in 45 games. The following season Brunnstrom went back to Sweden never coming back again.
Now why didn’t it work out? There are many reasons. His toughness or lack thereof was cited by many as a big reason why. This damning quote from General Manager Ken Holland of the Red Wings speaks volumes
“We want to explore what’s out there. We’re looking for certain types of guys (for Grand Rapids),’’ Holland said on July 5. “I think Brunnstrom is a good player, but we need leadership, toughness down there.’‘
He just did not hold up well to the NHL game. His durability bears this out. He never played a full professional season during his sojourn in North America. The grit and physicality needed to play in this league was just not present in Fabian or so the critics said. He never could get comfortable and his myriad of injury problems made fitting in even more difficult. Perhaps spending some time in the AHL instead of directly going to the NHL (a path few players take) would have helped him adjust to the tough and tumble style of North American hockey. It is impossible to say now.
To draw any conclusions from this would be ridiculous. Plenty of undrafted free agents such as Andy McDonald and Martin St. Louis has thrived in the NHL. In this case, it just did not work out. The Fabian Brunnstrom experiment is at an end, but one summer in 2008, the whole hockey world was talking about him. That’s a story he can tell his children one day.
This is the essential argument that the question of the NHL all-star game boils down to. One side would say that the game itself has entertainment value because it is a collection of the league’s best players doing goofy stuff, playing a game and having various skill-based competitions. The other side would say that since the players are at such a low gear, the product is so disconnected from hockey, it isn’t really a game at all. It only exists to remind us of the stars we don’t see and to promote the brand of hockey, to encourage us to be even more enmeshed in the sport than before.
The NHL game itself might be controversial with regards to its entertainment value but there is no doubt that hockey as played is a product and not a marketing ploy. Increasingly people are seeing entertainment from not just the 60 or so minutes of play but also from the interviews, media coverage and various other forms of coverage that the players receive.
The NHL all-star game is another entertainment product but it largely ditches the NHL game to present the personalities as the main product. Everyone knows that the most entertaining part of the games in recent history was the all-star draft rather than what the draft was for. And everyone knows that the most entertaining part of this year’s product was the on-ice antics during the skills competition and the controversy with regards to John Scott.
A 60-minute competition of adult men playing a game is no longer the most relevant entertainment component of the sport. In fact it is increasingly falling into the background. People are deriving entertainment from imposing their respective backgrounds on the sport. Quantitative analysts love seeing the fancy stats, managers love to think about the game from the perspective of the GM, gossips and socialites love the banality of a player’s melodramatic life: these are all examples of the transformation of hockey from an entertaining game into a platform for other types of distraction.
The best example of this is an artistically minded person I frequently watched hockey with. It turned out that he as most fascinated by the aesthetics of the jerseys and mask designs.
It seems that maybe 60 or more percent of the all-star game is a misguided advertising platform for country musicians. What the critical fan should know is that watching Burns wear a Chewbacca costume and let his son shoot the puck for him, or watching Gaudreau with a burning stick, these are now the real sources of entertainment.