NHL can do without classic 'divers'

Updated: November 18, 2005, 4:42 PM ET
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

Colin Campbell, to this day, maintains that over the long course of his career as an undersized pro defenseman, he never took a dive.

"I wasn't good enough to dive," he said. "It was all I could do to get the puck out."

That kind of self-deprecation, of course, is part of what makes Campbell so likable and respected in his job as, basically, the man in charge of how the NHL is played and officiated.

He's not always popular, but you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who would tell you Campbell isn't trying his hardest every day to make the NHL better.

So it should come as no surprise that Campbell believes diving, or pretending to be fouled in order to draw a penalty on the other team, is something that can't simply be ignored.

The issue has been boiling gently all season as teams grapple with new enforcement approaches to everyday occurrences like holding and hooking, and it exploded this week when volatile Los Angeles Kings forward Sean Avery blasted the league and the new competition committee after being publicly identified as a repeat offender.

Avery's name was published on a list that was sent to every NHL team and posted in every dressing room. The NHL apparently warned Avery after he received a diving penalty Oct. 19. He was then fined $1,000 for diving during a Nov. 3 game, although he was not given a minor in that game for the incident.

"How can a guy sitting in an office in New York determine if you dived or not by watching a tape?" a furious Avery told the Los Angeles Times. "They don't know if you had a bad ankle or a torn bursa sac or something. I can't even tell you what play they are even talking about. They don't have to tell you a play, just what game they are looking at."

Avery, through a series of dumb or offensive comments this season, has managed to draw attention to himself for mostly negative reasons. He is well known for his penchant to goad opposing players into penalties, particularly retaliatory ones, and is one of the league's best known trash talkers and pests.

But he claimed total innocence as a diver.

"No question that this is a way to do something to me," he told the Times. "It has nothing to do with diving. How can Colin Campbell or whoever it is sit at a desk and make that call? They should send the tape to all seven members of the competition committee and let them look at it."

Campbell, needless to say, was not amused by Avery's public thoughts, and fined him an additional $1,000 on Wednesday after having a telephone conversation with the Kings forward.

"We can tell a dive most of the time," he said. "We're just trying to get the emphatic ones and hope that players don't want to be on a list with their names up in every dressing room."

Currently, a player who is penalized for diving or suspected of doing so can be sent a warning letter by the NHL. A second offense is cause for a $1,000 fine and being named on a list, and the third offense is a $2,000 fine. The fourth offense results in a one-game suspension, although no NHL player has received that punishment for faking a foul.

"The whole idea is to bring the temperature down on diving and to help what we're trying to do on hooking and holding," Campbell said.

To be sure, the NHL isn't alone in having to deal with the concept of phony dramatics designed to gain an edge in competition.

Soccer, right up to the World Cup level, has long been singled out for a tradition of diving and faking injuries. Basketball has players who flop to draw a charge and football has receivers skilled to draw flags for pass interference even when they haven't been touched. In this year's World Series, a key moment included a player's pretending to be hit by a pitch that actually struck his bat.

To some extent, it's gamesmanship, and if all is fair in love and war, so too can the same be said of heated, physical games in which the margin between legal and illegal is often minuscule.

That said, the NHL is finding the issue particularly critical this season as it attempts to clean up the game with rule changes and alterations in the standards of officiating that were agreed upon by both the league and players. For much of the season, those changes and alterations have produced a parade of players to the penalty box, and at times, an unseemly number of power plays per game.

Having players like Avery pretending to be fouled just makes it worse for everybody, but calling dives is far from an exact science. Carolina's Erik Cole, for example, was whistled twice for diving in a game against Toronto on Nov. 3, and then the very next week, became the first NHLer to receive two penalty shots in a single game after being pulled down on breakaways.

Players are often vocal in their lack of regard for known divers, but are often happy to have them on their team. Talented and prolific players like Theo Fleury and Dino Ciccarelli flagrantly exaggerated penalties against them for their entire NHL careers, while Maple Leafs defenseman Bryan McCabe, currently leading all NHL defensemen in scoring, was identified by the league as a diver two years ago.

A player like Peter Forsberg, meanwhile, became so used to being hacked, chopped and hooked without any calls that he began to embellish penalties just to get a break.

It's a messy business that leaves everyone unhappy and never finds a player willing to confess to the crime. In a sport that too often is simply an ongoing debate over penalties called and uncalled, one man's dive is another man's flagrant foul.

"It's like, are we ever going to stop speeding? The answer is no," Campbell said. "But there's no sense quitting or they'll just go crazy.

"We don't like doing it. It's a pain in the ass."

Campbell estimates there are 40 first-offense divers the NHL is currently watching closely.

"Twenty teams have a classic diver, and some teams have two or three," he said.

One of the problems is that diving is rarely called on its own. Instead, referees usually give one player a minor for hooking or tripping, and then give the victim a diving penalty for embellishing the foul.

Some have suggested that doesn't provide a deterrent, and that a better system would be to give the diver four minutes.

"But that makes it even tougher to call it," Campbell said.

Clearly, diving isn't the biggest problem facing the NHL. It's more of an irritant and mild hindrance as the league tries to police its way to a more open, exciting game. But as players learn to adapt to the new style of play, for many a big part of the process is learning how to twist new interpretations of the rules to their advantage.

That said, until they start giving points for artistic impression, it remains something the sport can do without.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.