Ice Capades or Embellishment? Where Theatre and Hockey Meet

Awards season and a questionable call have me thinking about overacting on the ice.

As a former college theatre major, it isn’t often that my passions of hockey and the stage come together. While the two worlds share some common jargon (blocking, center line, wings, rush) and serve as popular escapes, there aren’t many times the theatre lover in me feels the need to critically examine action in the NHL. Unfortunately, in the recent loss to the Edmonton Oilers, the “dramatic” spilled over onto the ice with a very questionable embellishment call that played a minor role in the loss of two crucial points the Nashville Predators desperately needed. Since that game, I felt compelled to look into embellishment calls in the NHL and how the Predators have...performed.

Rule 64.1 in the Official 2019-2020 NHL Rulebook state that “any player who blatantly dives or embellishes a fall or a reaction, or who feigns an injury shall be penalized with a minor penalty under this rule.” While open to an official’s personal interpretation, diving or embellishing is a minor penalty. The NHL isn’t the only sports league to have such a rule. The NBA has an “anti-flopping” rule, the NFL has levied fines for players feigning injury to save a team time-out, and even MLS has a yellow card for dives and falls referred to as “unsporting behavior” (but let’s face it—professional men’s soccer players are the Jim Carreys of embellishment).

Even rugby had to officially address embellishment after the “Bloodgate” scandal at the Heineken Cup in 2009 (totally worth a Google).

I believe embellishment is more difficult to accurately identify in hockey than in other sports. Player safety in the NFL is so heavily scrutinized that situations that could even potentially cause injury are penalized, so there is little need to embellish. The NBA fans are merciless on floppers, and the crowd vitriol along with the technical foul serve as healthy deterrents. But hockey players can be skating at speeds nearing twenty-five miles per hour on blades mere millimeters in width on ice. The physics alone make embellishment seem the exception far more often than the rule in hockey.

There has been much debate in the NHL over players using a well-executed dive or embellishment to evoke a penalty call from the officials. In 2013, several players in the league wanted to create a “divers list” of offenders and have the list distributed to NHL locker rooms and officials. The hope was to not only make officials aware of potential offenders but also to embarrass the players on the “divers list” enough to curb the behavior. The curtain closed on that idea, but the embellishment/diving call had its time in the spotlight. Officials responsible for identifying the theatrical currently have a group of nine individuals who review post-game film to identify any missed dives. If six of the nine reviewers identify an uncalled embellishment or dive, the offending player can be cited post-performance. Even with this added scrutiny, perceived embellishment and diving continue to rankle many NHL players.

So far in the 2019-2020 season, embellishment calls have sent NHL players to the penalty box 26 times. Of those 26 times, the Nashville Predators have produced four embellishment/diving penalties (the most in the league), committed by two players. The Predators’ thespian standouts are Mikael Granlund and Viktor Arvidsson. Last month Arvidsson was fined $2000 after receiving a warning in a December game against the Penguins and two early January embellishment calls in games against the Ducks and the Bruins.

In the January 5th game against the Anaheim Ducks, Arvidsson was given two minutes for embellishment/diving after a hit by Max Jones. Reviewing the contact and its aftermath, I strongly disagree with the embellishment call against Arvidsson in this instance. Yes, he ended up on the ice looking as disheveled as a pre-Henry Higgins Eliza Doolittle, but the angle of contact and location near the bench doesn’t make Arvidsson’s fall seem overly exaggerated.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Arvy’s Oscar-worthy performance after a mild poke from Brad Marchand on January 7. Did Marchand need to make contact with Arvidsson? No. Did Arvidsson go down like Gollum perilously plunging into the fires of Mount Doom? Yes. Yes, he did. Two minutes in the sin bin was far more appropriate an encore in that instance.

By far the award for “Most Frustrating Embellishment Call of the Season” is won by the  aforementioned Granlund penalty in the February 8 game against the Edmonton Oilers. With the game tied 2-2 in the third period, Connor McDavid committed a holding penalty against Granlund. After McDavid grabbed Granlund’s arm, Granlund went down to his knees and then flat on the ice.

Nothing in the sequence at all suggests a faked response to being pulled off balance. Even more than that, Granlund seemed to be trying to maintain puck possession as he was falling, and his falling flat to the ice appeared to be an attempt to stretch the puck past a nearby Gagner. What should have been a power play for the Predators became a 4-on-4.  With :30 left in the 4-on-4 that shouldn’t be, Jarred Tinordi was whistled for interference and the Oilers made short work of their man advantage, scoring the game-winning goal just :19 later. The questionable embellishment call in the Oilers game may end up being the moment in the Predators’ already farcical season that ended their playoff hopes.

Even though there isn’t an award for “Best Actor” in the NHL, Nashville has ties to a few  notable embellishment offenders, which may make the referees subconsciously decide to make Bridgestone a more scrutinized stage. James Neal originated the role of “first embellishment fine payer” in 2014 as a Nashville Predator. Former Predator P.K. Subban also earned a reputation for embellishing. In his defense, Subban does everything in his life with a certain level of flair.

As a person who appreciates the dramatic, I still respect the need for an embellishment rule in theory.  It’s the loose and individual interpretation of rule 64.1 that makes me think something is rotten in the state of the NHL. After all, can a league that employs Wes McCauley really officiate overacting?