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Bruce DowbigginIn criminology they call it recidivism – the tendency of criminals to re-offend, revert to the norm, as it were. While there’s much noise about rehabilitation, a certain percentage of the usual suspects end up precisely where we found them. Bad to the bone.

So recidivism might be the best way to explain the National Hockey League and its sporadic efforts to go straight. Its attempts at curbing the malevolent instincts of players on its teams.

In some respects, rehabilitation in the NHL has worked splendidly. Fighting – at least the mindless video-game version between players with no other skills but punching – has thankfully left the sport. While Don Cherry still rages like King Lear on Saturdays about instigators and deterrence, the game is better off without its periodic outbreaks of bare-knuckled madness.

In other ways, however, the league just can’t help itself. For the years since “freeing up the game” was loudly declared following the 2004-05 lockout, fans have endured episodes of reform and recidivism on the flow of play, minor fouls, major fouls and video reviews.

“Wasn’t that a penalty in December?” a befuddled fan has asked this spring as some miscreant gets away with crime. The infraction could be as benign as how much interference to allow a defenceman when the puck is chipped behind him. Or it could be a cross-check to one of the game’s elite players that drew a suspension in the early season but now draws a wrist-tap from the risibly-named Department of Player Safety.

The fan confusion concerns the outbreak of vicious stick work in the 2017 playoffs. Anyone watching will recognize the cross-check victim mentioned above as Sidney Crosby of the Penguins, who was fed a graphite sandwich by Matt Niskanen of Washington when Crosby fell into him during their playoff series. Crosby was propelled into Niskanen by Capitals star Alex Ovechkin, who also applied graphite to noggin of the Pens captain.

Niskanen received five minutes for trying to garrote Crosby. But no suspension or fine. Not even a hearing about the act. Great news for Caps fans but a “What the hell?” for fans of other teams who’ve seen less from their teams punished more severely. (Canucks fans will reference a late but otherwise legal hit by Aaron Rome in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.)

Referees usually set a rigorous standard early in the playoffs, calling marginal fouls to halt boys with no impulse control. But the refs seemingly let it slide in 2017. Now, players have begun to employ the lacrosse standard of using a stick check to discourage opponents from breathing normally for two or three weeks. In this context, the Crosby crosscheck is a sign to push the standard as far as it can go.

The Niskanen-Ovechkin example is not exceptional. Anywhere close to the net, the two-hander has been de rigueur lately. While a penalty for breaking an opponent’s stick has been rigorously called, there has been no similar prohibition on breaking your stick over an opponent’s more vulnerable parts.

Then there was this vicious pitchfork spear by Boston’s perpetually offensive Brad Marchand to the junk of Jake Dotchin just before the playoffs. Despite a long rap sheet, Marchand got just two games for this, and – crucially – no playoff time off.

Indeed it seems that not only is there a different standard from the regular season in the playoffs, there’s a different standard from one playoff year to the next.

Now before we declare a fatwa on referees for ruining the post-season by neglecting their whistles, we need to point out that anyone who thinks referees call what they please is delusional. The game-to-game behaviour of zebras is monitored and shaped by a torrent of corrective memos from the league head office.

The head office, meanwhile, is monitored and shaped by ownership and management of teams, who keep up a steady stream of helpful suggestions about how the opponents are the most dastardly foes since Genghis Khan and their own players are pure as the driven snow. Often it’s really not worth a referee’s job to get too far out on a limb when Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs thinks you’re biased against Beantown.

The dissatisfaction with all this will no doubt reach the ears of commissioner Gary Bettman. Another campaign to clean up the game will be launched. Players and fans will howl, “You can’t call that!”

But they will. Until the next time it’s convenient to re-offend.

Bruce Dowbiggin is the host of podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on His career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.

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