Winter Classic 2012: Did NHL Officials Manipulate the Game for NBC's Benefit?

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Winter Classic 2012: Did NHL Officials Manipulate the Game for NBC's Benefit?
Rob Carr/Getty Images
Would the NHL alter a game for its broadcast partner NBC's benefit?

Though the ratings for the 2012 Winter Classic between the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers were the lowest the NHL has received for the annual New Year’s event, the game is without a doubt one of the league’s most prominent televised events.

In fact, it was created to be an “event:” something to be newsworthy, to be talked about, remembered and looked forward to each and every season.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and the other NHL owners decided to take a page out of the NBA’s book (where Bettman had once served under Commissioner David Stern). He wanted the Winter Classic to become the NHL’s version of the annual Christmas games the NBA forces its players into each year (which, you will note, the NBA made absolutely sure were played this year despite the lockout which severely curtailed every teams’ prep time for the start of the 2011-12 season).

New Year’s Day, once reserved solely for college football bowl games became somewhat abandoned as the BCS decided it'd be better to spread out their contests for maximum coverage and profit. So the NHL stepped into that midday void, hoping to make New Year’s Day their day.

To a certain extent, that succeeded. The Winter Classic, once thought to be a sideshow, a novelty of hockey being played outdoors, has now celebrated its fifth anniversary.

Do you think the NHL was attempting to manipulate the Winter Classic through the referees' calls (or non-calls)?

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However, like the NBA’s Christmas games, the NHL’s Winter Classic is fairly contrived. Despite the game being a regular season contest, nothing about this game appears left to chance. The location of the game is carefully determined by the league. The two teams that match up are hand selected. The pageantry surrounding it rivals the MLB All-Star Game, though this game is no exhibition.

Is it wrong to think that perhaps the game itself could be manipulated for maximum entertainment value ? Is this below the NHL and its broadcast partner NBC?

After the 2012 version of the game which the Rangers won 3-2 over the hosting Flyers, Rangers head coach John Tortorella blasted the officiating in the game. That’s right. The victorious coach was upset with the way the game—especially the final period—was called.

Tortorella said, “I’m not sure if NBC got together with the refs and wanted to turn this into an overtime game. I’m not sure if they had meetings about that or what.”

In other words, Tortorella felt as if the game was being fixed by the NHL at NBC’s request to force the game into an overtime situation.

He wasn’t alone in this line of thinking. Former player and current Rangers GM Glen Sather was quoted as saying “I didn’t think the game would come down to that situation. You see three or four calls that are enough to blow your mind... Look at all of it.”

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
A Rangers victory snatched from the NHL's jaws of defeat.

What made the pair so hot under the collar? The Rangers were losing 2-0 when they mounted a comeback, scoring three unanswered goals to take a 3-2 lead. Suddenly, the refs seemed to take umbrage and go after the Rangers, calling them for anything and everything while ignoring seemingly obvious calls against the Flyers.

As Pat Leonard wrote in the New York Daily News on January 2nd, “With 1:06 left, [Rangers’ captain] Ryan Callahan had the puck and an open net in front of him, but was hauled down by Kimo Timonen. However, Callahan was initially called for unsportsmanlike diving, but then it was changed to holding the stick, setting up a four-on-four in the final minute.

“Then, with :19.6 seconds left, Philadelphia’s Danny Briere was awarded a penalty shot on a call against Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh for covering the puck in the crease.”

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist stoned Briere on that shot, preserving the Rangers’ 3-2 victory. Lundqvist was later quoted as saying, “Obviously there’s a lot of pressure on me there—I couldn’t believe they called the penalty shot. It would have been tough to swallow that one if they’d scored, but luckily they didn't.”

While it would be easy to chalk up this whole affair to mere happenstance, looking at the brief history of the Winter Classic, it appears that this sort of referee-inspired manipulation is rampant.

Rick Stewart/Getty Images
Has the Winter Classic just been a "presentation" of the NHL from the start?

In the inaugural Winter Classic played in Buffalo between the Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins, the teams took a 1-1 tie into overtime. Interestingly, after four first period penalties, the game was penalty-free until a last second hooking call against Colby Armstrong of the Penguins set up a bit of home-ice advantage for the Sabres. Instead of Buffalo pulling it out in OT, the game went to a shoot out where the Penguins Sidney Crosby beat Ryan Miller for the game winner (in a precursor to Crosby’s gold medal winning goal against Miller in the 2010 Olympics).

All in all, a very memorable start for the Winter Classic.

The second installment, played in Wrigley Field between the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings, was a barn burner with the Red Wings winning 6-4. No need to mess with a high-scoring affair which played like a harder-hitting version of the All-Star Game. It was good television.

Yet in the third Winter Classic between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Boston Bruins, the referees clearly made their presence noticed. With the Flyers up 1-0 entering the third period, all of the calls went against the visitors. The Bruins were awarded three power plays in the third period, making good on what the refs gave them with a Mark Recchi goal with less than three minutes remaining in the game. Boston ultimately won in overtime, sending the Fenway Park faithful home happy.

In the 2011 version of the Classic, the Washington Capitals beat the hometown Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1. Yet the score was 2-1 when the Caps were hit with two penalties, one late in the second period, the other early in the third; however, the Penguins couldn’t score on either power play. Washington scored their third goal a minute after the Penguins’ last power play ended, sealing their victory.

These officiating antics seem more at home in the NBA than the NHL, yet there is a clear similarity. These calls—all subjective and open to debate or interpretation—altered the dynamic of the game, much to NHL’s and NBC’s benefit in keeping the end result in doubt longer.

So how far off the mark is Rangers head coach Tortorella with his accusation? In my opinion, he’s deadly accurate, which goes to show that if a league does want to manipulate its own games, it can do so simply through a few well-timed (or overlooked) penalties.

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