Sun-belted again!


The controversy surrounding the Vancouver’s disallowed goal in Monday’s Canucks-Kings game has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it? Flames fans know it well – it’s the clanging of that old “NHL wants sunbelt teams to win” bell again.

In case you missed it, the NHL video-review dudes ruled that Daniel Sedin kicked in a third-period goal that would have brought the Canucks within one in a key contest against the Kings. NHL exec Mike Murphy does a decent job of explaining the ruling to CBC’s hockey panel, but still (as much as I loathe the Canucks and it pains me to side with their fans), something doesn’t smell quite right about this one.

Admittedly, the NHL’s rules on kicked-in pucks are fuzzy and constantly evolving, but at very least it’s fair to say the application of the rule here wasn’t consistent with what fans saw for much of the regular season. Sedin certainly appears to turn his foot to ensure that the puck redirects off it, but there’s no distinct skate-off-the-ice kick that fits the league’s usual criteria for disallowing a goal off a skate.

Maybe it’s just a bad call, or at least a borderline one that could have gone either way, a judgement call. Maybe the league has been adjusting its kicked-goal definition to include intentional redirects such as this one, and just sort of forgot to tell the media and the public. Maybe.

But fans in Vancouver (at least when they decide to actually care), are apparently a paranoid bunch. The calls quickly went out that the fix is in, that the NHL wants the Kings to win because it has a lot invested in hockey in the U.S. sunbelt, and could really use a team from those hockey-indifferent markets getting deep into the playoffs.

Like I said, sounds familiar to Flames fans. But for Calgary, the fix was on a Stanley Cup-winning goal that wasn’t to be – and that the NHL officials didn’t even bother to review.

Cast your memory back to Game 6 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Final, third period. The Flames’ Oleg Saprykin throws the puck in front of the Tampa Bay net, where Martin Gelinas is crashing hard. Puck hits Marty’s skate, and Nikolai Khabibulin kicks it out. The best of all the replays (one the NHL replay judges had no access to), shows the puck clearly over the line.

A computer-generated analysis from a U.S. network days later  suggests that maybe it wasn’t quite over the line, and even diehard Flames fans have to admit that it was extremely close. But the point is, the on-ice officials never even bothered to stop the game and request a video review. (The NHL only looked at it after the fact, as they heard the uproar from the Flames faithful and sought to cover their butts.)

Now, maybe the NHL was wary of awarding a potentially Cup-winning goal on a controversial replay call, but the conspiracy theorists quickly claimed that the league wanted Tampa to win, because so much of its business strategy was built on succeeding in sunbelt-market cities. And now, six years later, we have the accusation arising again.

As Matthew Sekeres of The Globe and Mail argues in a blog today,  the NHL has brought this on itself. Gary Bettman’s ceaseless boosterism of sunbelt markets and under-appreciation of Canadian markets, both in words and actions, has created a clear impression that at the league’s top levels, it desperately wants sunbelt teams succeed – even, perhaps, at the expense of others.

Maybe the on-ice conspiracies are more imagined than real, but when you show preferential treatment for years to certain teams in certain markets the way Bettman has, you shouldn’t be surprised when fans in neglected, unappreciated, taken-for-granted markets start to seriously doubt your integrity.