Dirty lit­tle se­cret

Bonino in­ci­dent puts focus on em­bel­lish­ment in hockey

Cape Breton Post - - Sports - BY STEPHEN WHYNO

With one head-snap mo­tion, Nick Bonino of the Pitts­burgh Pen­guins re­minded ev­ery­one about hockey’s dirty lit­tle se­cret of em­bel­lish­ment.

Not the same kind of player flop­ping that oc­curs in, say, the NBA, and it’s cer­tainly not done at the same vol­ume seen in soc­cer, where div­ing is used ef­fec­tively at the high­est lev­els even as it is ridiculed and (oc­ca­sion­ally) pe­nal­ized.

In hockey, ex­ag­ger­at­ing a po­ten­tial penalty to get a call against the op­po­nent has long been part of the game — es­pe­cially in the Stan­ley Cup play­offs, when ev­ery­one’s look­ing for an edge — and em­bel­lish­ment is sim­ply re­al­ity even though the NHL has taken steps to stop it for more than a gen­er­a­tion.

Bonino sold a high-stick­ing penalty against Wash­ing­ton’s T.J. Oshie last week when re­plays showed the Pitts­burgh for­ward was never hit in the face late in Game 4. The Pen­guins got a power play, mak­ing it eas­ier to hang on for a win.

Cana­dian TV pun­dit Don Cherry ripped Bonino for be­ing “phoney,” re­tired de­fence­man Mike Com­modore pre­dicted he won’t draw a penalty the rest of the play­offs and for­ward-turned-an­a­lyst Mike John­son wished there was a way to sus­pend

a player for de­lib­er­ately and clearly fool­ing the ref­er­ees.

“It’s a tough job to call those, but I think there’s times that ev­ery­one steps over the line and it’s not called,” Nashville

Preda­tors de­fence­man Ryan El­lis said. “It’s in the game, and it hap­pens.”

Em­bel­lish­ment runs counter to the prin­ci­ples of hockey that prize tough­ness and play­ing through pain. Fak­ing it sim­ply seems way out of place. But in the mod­ern NHL where hook­ing, hold­ing and other ob­struc­tion fouls are called tighter and power plays are so im­por­tant, draw­ing penal­ties is a skill that is worth its weight in goals, points in the stand­ings, wins and pos­si­bly even money on the next con­tract.

“You al­ways get guys say­ing they’ll do any­thing to win this time of year,” veteran Cap­i­tals de­fence­man Brooks Or­pik said. “If that’s what you feel is nec­es­sary, then I guess that’s what you do. I think a ma­jor­ity of guys in the league aren’t com­fort­able do­ing that.”

Game of­fi­cials can call em­bel­lish­ment mi­nors, of course, but the league also watches for them and a panel votes weekly on pos­si­ble in­frac­tions, with re­peat of­fend­ers an­nounced pub­licly. Since the NHL added fines and the pub­lic sham­ing for em­bel­lish­ment be­fore the 2014-15 sea­son, di­rec­tor of hockey op­er­a­tions Colin Camp­bell said, in­ci­dents that get re­viewed by the league of­fice are down sharply, from 35-40 in­ci­dents per week in 2014-15 to just 20-25 this sea­son.

Plays like Bonino’s bring fresh head­lines, but Camp­bell said he feels em­bel­lish­ment is no longer ram­pant af­ter say­ing in June 2014 it was “out of con­trol.”

Four em­bel­lish­ment penal­ties have been called on the ice through Sun­day in these play­offs af­ter 18 dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son ac­cord­ing to Scout­ing the Refs, a web­site that tracks NHL of­fi­cials (the NHL does not re­lease the statis­tic).

Preda­tors de­fence­man P.K. Sub­ban was fined twice along with eight other play­ers once in 2014-15 and Toronto Maple Leafs cen­tre Nazem Kadri was fined twice last sea­son as 11 oth­ers were pub­licly an­nounced as em­bel­lish­ers. This sea­son, only three play­ers — the Cap­i­tals’ Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ari­zona Coy­otes’ Keith Yan­dle and Oliver Ek­man-Lars­son — re­ceived fines.

Bonino has never been cited, and Camp­bell said the Pen­guins for­ward was not on the list of known of­fend­ers. One of the he­roes of Pitts­burgh’s 2016 Cup run, he in­sisted he thought he was hit in the face, see­ing on re­play that Oshie’s stick pushed the plas­tic part of shoul­der pad into his jaw to draw his re­ac­tion.

“I watched the re­play and I was like, ‘Wow, there’s some back­lash on this,’ I think when my his­tory is that I’m a pretty hon­est guy and the last thing I want to do is em­bel­lish a call,” Bonino said. “When you get hit with any­thing, what­ever, in the face, you’re not ex­pect­ing it. I feel bad. I put the ref in a tough spot there, and you never want to do that.”


In this March 17 file photo, Pitts­burgh Pen­guins’ Nick Bonino cel­e­brates his goal in the sec­ond pe­riod of an NHL game against the New Jer­sey Devils in Pitts­burgh.

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