PHILADELPHIA -- During the 2008 playoffs, Sean Avery was an ass. We're talking like, a much bigger one than usual, too. The shining example of this, of course, came when he turned around and wiggled his arms like a fish out of water in front of Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur.
He did it for a good 20 or 30 seconds on the power play before the puck was chipped out of the zone. On the ensuing rush up ice, as the Rangers set up in the zone again, Avery pushed a loose puck through Brodeur and in to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead. A normal screen would've been just fine. You know, stand there in front of the net to block the goalie's vision. Avery's extra antics did nothing to enhance the screen play, except for maybe distract Brodeur a bit and piss him off. Essentially, Avery was just being an ass... and even worse, he was rewarded for it.
The reward was short-lived, however. The NHL changed their interpretation of Rule 75, which governs unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, as a result of the play. Here's what Colin Campbell had to say about this new interpretation the day after the Avery incident, as quoted by ESPN.com:
"An unsportsmanlike conduct minor penalty will be interpreted and applied, effective immediately, to a situation when an offensive player positions himself facing the opposition goaltender and engages in actions such as waving his arms or stick in front of the goaltender's face, for the purpose of improperly interfering with and/or distracting the goaltender as opposed to positioning himself to try to make a play," Colin Campbell, the NHL director of hockey operations, said in a statement.
It's worth noting that the rulebook was never changed. Go look at Rule 75 right now. There's no extra "Sean Avery rule" portion that's been added there since April 2008. To take what Campbell is saying there and put it into layman's terms, it's basically saying that if you're trying to be an ass like Sean Avery by turning towards the goalie and waving your arms like a buffoon, you're gonna get an unsportsmanlike penalty called against you.
So that's where we are today, when Chris Pronger was whistled in overtime for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after apparently doing something equal to what Avery did. To the video!
The penalty apparently comes before Mike Richards even takes his shot, when Richards is backtracking with the puck from the half-boards to the top of the circle. Pronger stretches his arm out to his left for a second or two. What's he doing that for? According to the officials, apparently, he was doing it to block Kiprusoff's vision.
But how does that make any sense? If Pronger was trying to block Kipper's vision, how come he didn't leave his arm up in the air? How come both of his arms weren't outstretched the entire time he was standing in front of the net? How come he only put it up for two seconds? To me, it looks like he's directing traffic. He's giving Richards a signal. After the game, that's what the Captain had to say on the subject.
"I saw Prongs calling for the puck, and I knew he wanted it. As I was walking up, he made the motion that he was by himself, which he was, and it was more of a shot for his stick. I just tried to float it in there. He missed it and then it went in. [...] He was calling for the puck, I thought. We work on that in practice. If he's open, he calls for it, and we just try to lob it in there to him."
Herein lies the big problem. It's not obvious either way what Pronger is trying to do there. It's all about interpretation.
There's no definitive rule on the books that says you can't screen the goalie with your hand. There's no rule on the books that says you can't extend your arm to screen the goalie. The only thing we have is an interpretation of Rule 75 from Colin Campbell that you can't face the opposition goaltender and engage in actions for the purpose of improperly interfering as opposed to positioning yourself to make a play.
Pronger's in position to make a play there, as he very easily could've tipped that puck past Kiprusoff. He's not there with the sole purpose to distract or with the sole purpose to be an ass, as Avery was two and a half years ago. All we have to go off of is a two second-long extension of his arm. He's not facing the goalie, he's not taking himself out of the play and it's completely up to the interpretation of the official whether or not he's "improperly interfering."
If it's me looking at it, I can't equate what Chris Pronger did here today with what Sean Avery did in New York two years ago. Pronger's post-game press conferences are much closer to the assholery of Avery than anything he does on the ice. (And that's a compliment, Chris.) As I see it, the implementation of this Avery rule is to remove a laughing stock from the game. What Pronger did today was not a laughing stock, plain and simple.
Again, that's the issue. The official made a judgment call, and that's fine. We shouldn't be putting those decisions in their hands, but unfortunately we too often do just that. Should we probably have a more stringent rule in place that defines this play, as opposed to a simple two-year-old statement from Colin Campbell? Sure. But we won't blame the officials for that. We blame the suits for that.
The problem we should all have with this is that Don VanMassenhoven said after the game that the officials "declined comment" on this. As a result, Ghislain Hebert, the official who made the call, doesn't have to explain his judgment to the public -- to the 19,872 in attendance who felt scammed out of their money after today's game.
In Major League Baseball, the NBA and even the NFL, officials have to answer after calls like this one. The fact that VanMassenhoven and his partner can hide behind the curtain without defending their judgment call is absolutely pathetic. The officials need to be held accountable for the calls they make on the ice, and until now, the NHL hasn't done that. The arrogance of thinking that they're above answering to the fans is just incredible.
Then again, as Pronger said after the game, maybe they're hiding because "they know they screwed up, that's why."