by RGM81 aka Richard McAdam

Hockey is an amazing game to watch. The speed, the skill, the drama, the personalities (as long as they’re not rookies or goalies), and the intensity are a pure joy to behold. Nowhere is this truer than in the National Hockey League, the premier professional hockey league in North America and indeed the world. The best players from all over the globe dream of playing in the NHL and competing for the Stanley Cup. The constant tinkering with the game’s rules has allowed for continuous product improvement that makes the game more exciting for fans to watch. Since the lockout, the clutching and grabbing and trapping that stifled offensive creativity and dulled fans to sleep has been shoved aside, making the game better in every facet. The NHL has changed the rules about hooking and holding, made goaltending equipment smaller, prevented teams from buying championships via the salary cap, and removed the red line to open up the offence.

Except for one. The one area of the game that has remained the same old inexcusable weakness has been the officiating. Referees continue to exercise poor judgment, to make incomprehensible calls, and still are not held publicly accountable for their mistakes. In every other professional sport, officials go under the spotlight and have to defend their actions. In hockey—at least, in the NHL—they do not, and because of the incompetence and lack of accountability they hold back the NHL from being an even better representation of the best game on ice. In most sports, the best referees are the ones that are more-or-less anonymous. If you don’t know their name, it’s generally a good thing. While some of the elite officials in other leagues do get recognition for having served the game for a long time, the basic rule of thumb is that if you know an official by name it is for a very bad reason. In the National Football League, Ed Hochuli is a very well-known official for two reasons: his physique rivals that of many players, and for a couple of sensational blown calls. In Major League Baseball, Jim Joyce was a relatively anonymous (yet lauded) umpire since 1987, a run of 23 years, before becoming infamous for costing Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game with a blown call. When the officials become the story of a game, something has gone horribly wrong.

Common Caricature of an NHL Official

The National Hockey League, and its fans, have for decades been witnesses to referees’ actions deciding the outcomes of games. I am not saying that NHL referees are biased or deliberately displaying favouritism to one team over others, as LA Kings GM Dean Lombardi did after a recent loss. For those who are unaware, Lombardi stated that the decision-maker on goals subject to video review wanted to be the GM for the Kings and because he did not get the job; “You have to assume you are going to get those type of calls” going against the Kings. I do not subscribe to the tin foil hat theories about certain teams getting preferential treatment. Rather, I believe that there simply is a tremendous level of incompetence in NHL officiating. Certainly there are many incidents that one can point to that support this claim. The legendary Don Koharski-Jim Schoenfeld “Have another donut” incident was brought on by the coach’s belief that Koharski called a terrible game. The mere mention of the name Kerry Fraser raises the blood pressure of Toronto Maple Leafs supporters still angry over the non-call on Wayne Gretzky in the 1993 Western Conference Finals. Ever since he called ten straight penalties against the Montreal Canadiens in a game against the Minnesota Wild, Chris Lee has received the ire of Habs fans whenever he officiates a Canadiens game. A Florida Panthers-Toronto Maple Leafs game went in the Leafs’ favour after enforcer Colton Orr ran over Florida’s netminder Scott Clemmensen and no call was made; Orr was able to put the puck into the open net to give the Leafs the win. The list of examples could go on for pages, enough to fill up an entire book.

Part of the problem, at least from this fan’s perspective, is that there is no public accountability for NHL officials. They are stringently protected by the NHL, arguably better than the players. If a player or coach criticizes a bad call or a poor performance, they get fined heavily; on more than one occasion, a fine for criticizing an NHL official has been higher than that for a sucker-punch or other infraction resulting in injury to another player. Earlier I mentioned Ed Hochuli and Jim Joyce—when these officials made their respective errors, both of them faced the media and public discipline from their respective leagues. Hochuli had his status downgraded and was not permitted to officiate key playoffs games that year. Joyce was tearful and utterly remorseful in his acknowledgment that “I just cost that kid a perfect game.” The latter’s candor earned him the respect of many who were previously outraged at his blunder. In all my years of watching hockey, I have never seen an NHL official stand before a podium and acknowledge a blown call or costly error that affected the outcome of a hockey game. I have no recollection of the NHL publicly castigating an NHL referee for a mistake. Without public accountability, the problem will continue.

I understand that hockey is a very fast game, and things happen instantaneously, leaving referees with only split-seconds to make a decision. Yet the volume and magnitude of the poor decisions leave a very lasting impression upon fans and actual games. We have all seen on many occasions flagrant tripping or high-sticking fouls not get called early in a game, yet when the score is 2-2 and there are only 3 minutes left in the 3rd period, a very weak or even “phantom” call will be made, and the beneficiaries of the power play will inevitably score the winning goal soon after. The inconsistency in calling infractions leaves fans furious, and one only need to look at the amount of garbage thrown on the ice or visit a team’s official online message board during a game to see the vitriolic reactions to such terrible calls. While many of the reactions are over the top in their excess, there is a legitimate gripe on some level with the poor calls that are made that have an effect on the game’s final outcome.

All of this begs the question: what can the NHL do to improve officiating?

Coming Soon?

The NHL has some ability to intervene into a situation and overrule an incorrect call if a controversial goal is scored—but even on those most crucial matters, there are still a number of situations in which the referee’s initial verdict is final. How many times have we seen a loose puck in the crease get tapped into the net, but the play is blown dead because the official “thinks” that the goalie has the puck? If a player is offside, but the call is missed, and the play results in a goal there is nothing that can be done to review the play and overturn the incorrect call. There has to be a way that the flawed human judgment can be remedied if the wrong call is made. This has led to many in the hockey community calling for a coach’s challenge, similar to what is used in football, to be introduced on plays in which a goal is scored or waved off. By interjecting a different set of eyes into the ruling, the review of a coach’s challenge can go a long way in ensuring that the right calls get made. Those split-second decisions can be overruled if they are found to be incorrect. The scope and scale of the coach’s challenge concept is something to be worked out by the League, and goes beyond the scope of this article.

The most important step needed to improve the officiating in the NHL is that the League must force its referees to be accountable in public. They must remove the shield protecting referees from even the most minute amount of criticism from players and coaches. If a coach crosses a line and descends into spouting conspiracy theories, as Lombardi did, of course they can still be subject to a fine. But the present system essentially forbids any and all mention of a referee’s decision or action without being penalized by the League. Within minutes of a game’s conclusion, the media are allowed into the teams’ dressing rooms to interview players who are still steaming over the way a game’s outcome was determined—of course there are going to be incidents where heated athletes will utter some charged and provocative comments. Coaches have to do post-game conferences to discuss the game, and inevitably there will be a question about an official. It is amazing the effect that knowing you have to step in front of a microphone and explaining your behaviour after the game is over can have on a person. Yet there is no such conference or media availability for the referees. Players are accountable for their actions on the ice and their words off the ice, yet those who police the players are not. This is a massive incongruity and it must be changed. Until NHL referees are held accountable for their actions, they will continue to operate with impunity and be above reproach.

NHL officials are for the most part good at what they do. They work hard and are devoted to remaining objective and fair. They do not get paid large amounts of dollars that those whom they police receive. I do not believe that they are out to “get” players as Alex Burrows alleged last year vis-à-vis Stephane Auger. When we do not notice the referees, it means that they have done a good job. Most games we do not notice them other than the odd eye-rolling experience of seeing both players lined up to take a faceoff getting kicked out for some minor violation. However, the times that we do notice them are for some truly egregious errors that have a direct influence on a game’s final score. Unfortunately for the NHL, its fans, and its players, this happens far too often, and until change happens the officials will remain the worst thing about the NHL.