As we slide into what will hopefully be a more competitive Stanley Cup Final than any other series the Kings have played thus far, I want to broach something that has managed to be constantly discussed while never actually being effectively addressed. There is a serious problem in the NHL right now: the standards of officiating are inadequate. I don’t think it’s because the refs are actually incapable of doing their job. The problem is that refs are used to doing their job in their own way, with far less oversight and accountability than you think.

I’m blown away at the intensity, focus, and discipline required to be an effective NHL player on a great team. They have a team of doctors and physiotherapists telling them how to get the most out of their bodies, a team of ex-players and specialists telling them how to skate, a coach demanding they lay it all on the line if they want ice time, and a fleet of sports journalists and fans ready to pick them apart. There is something truly monumental about watching two elite teams throw themselves at one another for 60 minutes to win one game in one series in one season. You can’t fake that. These guys deserve to be treated fairly.

I know, I know. You’ve heard this all before out of whining fans and angry players in situations where tempers are high, interpretations are convenient, and arguments suck. Everyone with a favourite team has been convinced that the refs screwed them. But I’m not talking about your team, and I’m not talking about one call.

And I’m not going to claim that it’s terrible, because it’s not. However, it is bad enough that we need to start asking some tough questions about what exactly is going on. Typically, we don’t ask these questions. If we do, we’re only complaining because our team lost. The game is fast and we’re on our couch with instant replay. Concerns about consistency and fairness are born out of bitterness and emotional immaturity. You don’t know what it’s like on the streets, and sometimes maintaining order involves things that work even though they don’t really fit with the rules. If we have a problem, it’s surely because of our naivety.

To be clear, I’m not talking about narrowly missed off-sides and close icing calls. These are hard things to consistently get right, and we shouldn’t consider it a sign of incompetence or malice that a ref can’t consistently be correct on such issues. Perhaps these problems require a more stringent use of instant replay, but that’s another topic. My issue here is with situations where two guys drop their gloves to pummel someone for a clean hit and nobody takes a fighting major; where a guy takes an interference call without touching anyone; where one guy gets tossed for barking at a ref while a star player doesn’t; or where different refs have different ideas about what exactly roughing is going to be tonight. Far too often, we are seeing a ref make a call based on his own personal interpretation of what ‘fairness’ is without adequate guidance from the rule book.

Now obviously, as one of many loud-mouthed semi-amateur part-time bloggers, I am not privy to the inner-workings of the NHL. We all hear about how every ref sits and watches tape and goes over his calls after every game, and how the level of accountability is just so darn high that we should all be ashamed of ourselves for even asking about it. Well, I’m not buying it. My conclusion, thus far, is that refs in the NHL generally feel pretty free to do whatever the hell they want, and the people who are supposed to hold them accountable have a funny idea of when this freedom becomes problematic.

As fans, we occasionally get a magical glimpse into the dark inner workings of an NHL officiating process that we are apparently not supposed to see. This glimpse was shocking in 2010 when we learned that Colin Campbell was not only abusing his power as the Director of Hockey Operations, but also that major voices in the hockey media and the NHL were apparently fine with it. He wrote to the Head of Officiating demanding to know why a particular “bullshit” penalty was called against his son in a game he freely admitted he didn’t watch. He suggested that the Head of Officiating purposely assign two bad referees to a particular game so he can give a player he doesn’t like “something to [really] whine about”. And that’s from the sliver of his emails we were lucky enough to see. You think that’s weird? You’re so naïve! Eric Duhatschek assured us we were overreacting. Bob McKenzie insisted that Campbell still had the backing of the NHL community. We were apparently all victims of the “disconnect” between fans and the league, as Campell’s inbox overflowed with messages telling him to “hang in there”. Silly us, thinking that the process was more professional, accountable, and honest than that. Campbell is just “old-time hockey”. We’re so naïve!

We got another great glimpse into the mind of the NHL ref in the Flyers/Pens 24/7 series, when Dan O’Halloran warned Max Talbot twice that he was playing on the edge and was going to take a penalty if he kept going. O’Halloran eventually called Talbot on a completely clean hit, telling the confused player, “I told you you were gonna get one, Max”. Talbot, who possibly heard the warnings and took care on future hits, complained that the hit wasn’t actually illegal and that it didn’t make sense to give him a ‘cumulative’ penalty if he never actually did anything illegal. O’Halloran, to my surprise, actually agreed with Talbot and sounded truly apologetic when he admitted it was a bad call. So it took about 4 seconds for Talbot, a skilled English debater I’m sure, to poke a mountain-sized hole in O’Halloran’s philosophy of keeping the peace on his streets. Poor Max, he’s so naïve.

And then there was our terrifying glimpse into the inner sanctum of Lord Auger. It didn’t surprise me that Burrows had embellished an injury and it didn’t surprise me that the ref who got tricked was pissed. What surprised me was the confidence of Auger, who admitted that Burrows’s explanation of their conversation was exactly accurate except he surely never threatened to ‘get him back’ (of course not! Don’t be naïve). However, he proceeded to call arguably the worst phantom penalty in the last five years late in the third period of a tie-game between two inter-conference playoff-bound teams. Now, all other things aside (I know you hate Burrows…), ask yourself this: What kind of confidence do you have to have in the security of your job and the unassailability of your authority to tell a player in advance that you’re going to nail him, and then screw him at the worst possible time without waiting for him to actually touch a guy? Does that sound like a league where Auger is going to sit down in a room afterwards and be held accountable for his calls? Well, apparently the league’s notion of accountability isn’t what you might expect. It was reported after this incident that the NHL did indeed seem to be keeping Auger from a normal share of playoff games, presumably because he’s actually a pretty shitty ref. So what, you think it’s weird that a guy who is pretty bad at his job still gets paid a couple hundred thousand a year, never had to speak to a camera, and avoided discipline from the league? You’re so naïve!

Or how about the two weeks of complete hysteria from the referees that came on the heels of Shanahan’s ridiculous decision not to suspend Lucic for running Miller? All of a sudden, everyone skating within a foot of a goalie was interfering with him. If you actually do touch him, you’re getting a couple games. What, you thought that refs were using their own judgement and commitment to consistency to decide when a goalie was being interfered with? Nah. The majority of GMs were actually united in a collective What-the-Fuck on that one, so there’s the NHL’s version of accountability: let’s cover each other’s asses.

As fans, our complaints about this issue sound like sour grapes because we only get really upset when it happens to our team. You’re not going to hear coaches, players, or GMs go out and do anything about this because they don’t want to get screwed in their pockets or on the ice unless they’re really pissed. In the situations when they’re really pissed it involves their own players so no one listens to them. But the knowledge that refs aren’t held accountable, and often aren’t very good, is always lurking under the surface. The problem isn’t that refs can’t do their job: the problem is that nobody above them is making sure they do it properly. Coaches know that refs don’t like certain players, and some of them have even admitted that certain teams seem to win a lot less with a certain ref in charge (Paul Maurice said exactly that following the Auger incident, while skilfully insisting that he didn’t think it was an issue in the league). If you look closely at the people in charge of making refs accountable, you get a sense for why they are ignoring the concept of making the entire system more accountable. As fans, we should care less about this or that call against our team and instead unite in our anger about the standards of accountability and consistency in NHL officiating in general. These guys can and should be a lot better.

Comments (10)

  1. Ugh, this is a terrible, terrible piece with no research and a lack of understanding of the basic subjectivity refereeing and the incredibly gray area of NHL rules.

    Tell me, Neil, what do you know about how referees are evaluated by the league? Because it appears you did exactly no research on the mechanisms already in place. There have been referees suspended, but the league doesn’t make those public because it undermines the refs authority. If you want to figure it out, feel free to put in the legwork to look who is assigned around the league every night.

    Also. please tell me what a normal share of playoff games for a ref is and how Auger is clearly the only guy not receiving them. There is not such thing as a normal share – like teams, only a certain percentage of the refs make the post-season based on their performance. Auger’s almost never considered a top-half guy, and that does put his job at risk pursuant to the NHLOA CBA with the league. Could he be replaced? If you’ve got an NHL-ready ref waiting in the wings, I’m sure they’d be happy to give him a tryout, but they don’t grow on trees.

    Barring a few calls, most penalties are not black-white “did or did not happen.” Most happen on a continuum of illegality, from a tiny tap of the stick on a hip to a full-scale hooking hogtie. Technically, the first is illegal but it is not called in ideal circumstances (clear ref sightline, no fall from the player who got tapped). So your “clearly a bad call” is someone else’s “mid-level hook that could or could not have been called” is someone else’s “clearly trying to slow the guy down with a hook.” Heck, offside and icing are actually much easier calls the vast majority of the time because the rule is black and white, the criteria clear and the sight-lines good.

    Things I agree with you about – Campbell is a moron and should have been removed from his position of oversight as soon as those e-mails came to light. Auger didn’t handle the situation well, and frankly he’s a guy I think struggles in many games. Compare him to a fourth-line NHL guy, who is passable but decidedly meh and has some just terrible decisions at times.

    The problem is, and here is the other failing with your piece, that there is no solution offered. As much as Auger struggles, there are no viable replacements, and you need a certain minimum number of referees to function as a league. You say they’re just not very good, but trust me, the AHL guys look like terrible fish out of water when brought up to do NHL games. Refereeing is an absurdly difficult job at the NHL level, and even the best guys are the subject of fan and team wrath at times. As long as the rules are subjective and up for human interpretation, someone will always been unhappy.

    There are lots of reasonable discussions to have about refereeing – how can they be educated to better see dives in real time? How can they improve consistency as a group about certain calls, particularly obstruction-type calls, so you don’t get wild swings from game-to-game? Simply ranting about how they’re not evaluated and not good enough is not one of them.

    • @Erin: I’m not sure if you have officiated a game or not (at any level) but I can speak from some experience (I’m IIHF acredited, not to international level however)

      I agree with some of your point, but I disagree with others. The ‘tap on the hip’ is legal – this is identifed in the IIHF casebook as a legitimate method to attempt to dislodge the puck. This only becomes a hook if the players stick then impeeds the other play in any way. Hooking is normally seen by a player pulling back on the stick or slowing down (or the attacking player’s progress being impeeded, either by a slowdown or pulling off their line). If it interfears with the play, its a penalty – a lot less Grey area than you believe there to be.

      My national head ref states repeatedly that there is no such thing as a borderline call – it either is a penalty or it is not. However he also states that the calls should only be made if it affects or is likely to affect the game – if in a non-checking game two players collide accidentally off of the puck, I am not going to call either of them for interfearance.

      I think the ‘casual fan’ and even the majority of ‘hardcore’s’ dont have the indepth rules knowledge to say ‘yes or no’. Heck, even as a reasonably experienced ref there is still lots to learn, and lots to be gained by watching and working with different referees.

      I find it hard to be objective about penalties that are called/not called against my team, however there were a few non-calls in the Kings/Coyots series (against both teams mind you). There was a blatent boarding against Korpikowski, the knee on knee on Rozi (in real time I would have called it – and it would be a major just due to injury. On reply I still see it as somewhat illegal, but not as bad as I originally thought). On the kings side of things, I’ve come around on the dive call on Brown on the slash by smith, and think that was a bad (reputation) call. I think there were a few other penalties (specific examples escape me) where the coyotes were not called. Overall I was not impressed with the officiating, and I thought the bad calls were skewed to the LA kings benefit (although not deliberately). I think the non-call on the Brown/Rozival hit was a bad non-call that led to a series loss.

      My point in all of this rambling is this: I agree that the officials at the NHL level have a damn hard job. I agree that they are frequently unfairly ‘called out’ by fans/players/coaches. But I also think there needs to be a more transparent discussion about the overall standard. I think every hockey organisation needs to continually improve their officials – and that this includes the NHL.

      • “I agree that the officials at the NHL level have a damn hard job. I agree that they are frequently unfairly ‘called out’ by fans/players/coaches. But I also think there needs to be a more transparent discussion about the overall standard”

        Exactly. Hiding the process from fans doesn’t preserve the authority of refs, imho. It makes people wonder why they aren’t allowed to know what’s going on. Sure, it diminishes their authority. That’s exactly the point. In the NFL and tennis, the challenge system is used to limit the number of game-influencing mistakes that officials make. In the NHL, you get shouted out of the room for being an armchair ref the minute you suggest a coach’s challenge system. Why is that?

        • (To clarify, I do think that hiding the process from fans preserves authority in the sense that refs are never seen to be accountable for their actions, but it also diminishes their authority, or perhaps more accurately their reputation, in the sense that people become skeptical about their effectiveness and the mechanisms in place to monitor them)

  2. Thanks for your reply Erin. You’re right that I’m not offering a specific solution to the problem, but I don’t think I agree with the implication that pointing out a problem without offering a solution is not a ‘reasonable discussion’. I don’t think we, as fans, think there is a problem here. My goal was to argue that there is.

    I argued that we have seen enough in the past 2-3 years to question whether NHL refs are being held accountable in ways that effectively pressure them to be consistent and fair. With respect, I think some of the criticisms you’re making refer to things that fall outside this scope. (For example, I never said nor implied that Auger was the only guy not receiving playoff games, I never claimed to be offering a solution, I never said that most penalties are black-and-white, etc.)

    I agree with some of what you’re saying. I am not privy to the inner workings of the monitoring process, and I would love to get access to a list of refs who have been suspended and the reasoning behind these suspensions (if you know where I could find that kind of information, I’d appreciate a link. And I don’t mean to be snarky at all about that, I honestly looked and couldn’t find anything, and would greatly appreciate the information if you know where I might dig it up). I am basing my judgment on the things that we as fans have had access to, and my reasons for doing so are included in each of the four examples I listed.

    I’m not interested in flaming each other in a comments section, I don’t see the point. If you’re going to accuse me of ranting and writing a terrible piece, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that you limit your criticisms to things I’ve said. It’s called the ‘principle of charity’ – (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principle_of_charity). It basically states that if you’re going to try and tear an argument to shreds, you have to honestly and accurately depict what that argument is. It’s important to do that purely for the sake of having a constructive and respectful dialogue, which is the only kind of dialogue I’m interested in having.

  3. gerat article. I have watched so many games where I don’t have a favourite team ( or disliked team for that matter ) playing and don’t understand what they are doing some of the time. For me it’s not personal, I just want to feel like fairness matters to the league -for all teams and players involved.

    • “I just want to feel like fairness matters to the league”

      After watching some of the reffing and the disciplinary decisions made in the playoffs this year, I could not agree with you more Andrew. To be fair, I definitely think that fairness matters to the league, but I don’t think that it matters as much as some of us would like.

  4. I don’t know if I would say this is a great article but definitely a topic I am glad that was brought to light for discussion. So many will avoid the discussion because they have not had deep thoughts about the subject.

    I try to watch as much hockey as I can. My free time is extremely limited because of my personal life; I rarely get to watch a full game most nights. I have been lucky enough to watch a fair amount of footage from playoff games (2 periods here, the end of the 3rd and overtimes there, but also the occasional full game).

    Now before I begin my rant, please know that I cheer for the Calgary Flames so I’ve been able to have a high amount of objectivity for a few years now.

    When I do watch hockey, I like to watch it openly and try to do so without bias. I am aware of reputations of certain players and coaches but I do try and ignore those thoughts.

    Personally, I don’t think this article addresses the two largest problems in the game:
    1. Consistency of interpretation of the rules by officials between the regular season and the playoffs;
    2. The lack of accountability from game to game by officiating crews.

    The first quote I pulled from the main article addresses my second point and was this:

    “So what, you think it’s weird that a guy who is pretty bad at his job still gets paid a couple hundred thousand a year, never had to speak to a camera, and avoided discipline from the league?”

    This comment shows up late in the article when it should have been in the opening paragraph or two. We all know that the officiating crew doesn’t have to be available to the media and I respect that. These guys do, as Erin points out, have a difficult job to referee an NHL game.

    What is not mentioned is how the officials are interpreting the rules and then applying them to the game at hand. No explanation is available as to how the rule was interpreted.

    It is much easier for armchair officials and media types to criticize an official when we have the beauty of watching 18 replays before the next puck drop. I’ve heard it mentioned before regarding players not being able to make the best decisions because of the speed of the game, which I think is grade-A bologna, but players do make errors in judgement (which is not where I stand on the Brown-Roszival hit).

    Officials are required to make probably the fastest decisions on the ice. Sure they have the beauty of replay when it comes to goals but that’s where the aid of technology stops. Everything else is a series of subjective, split-second (for the most part correct) decisions that directly affect one team’s chances at winning/losing the game. It is one thing to slash an opponent’s wrist when he’s about to take a shot on goal with a goalie out of position; it is a completely different thing to have to make the call on that slash.

    What needs to be done?
    I think the league needs to have around 8 independent panels (a jury of sorts chosen by the league, players, and officials association) that watch every NHL game (regular season and playoffs) who then analyzes the officiating decisions, consults with the entire officiating crew afterwards (probably via Skype if it cannot be done in person. The technology to isolate and live stream certain plays exists) and then answer any media questions. The immediate issue is that these panels wouldn’t be available until the following day after they’ve consulted with the officials and each other. These people can explain the officiating crew’s decisions as well as what they saw. It keeps the referees protected from the media but also holds them slightly accountable.

    This leads to the next issue: accountability. If a referee made a bad decision on a call or non-call, what does it matter what this panel says? The panel should be given power to fine and suspend officials. One might even suggest that these panels will also deal with the more minor on-ice incidents with players and coaches as well.

    The independent panel is something that needs to be considered. The NHLOA is in charge of disciplinary action against referees but the union is not accountable to the media either. At least the independent panel could be objective as they would not be protecting one of their own. On the flip side, the NHL cannot be the disciplinary body as it would be a conflict of interest. 30 NHL owners all screaming for this ref or that ref to be fine, suspended, or fired because of something causing their team to lose the previous night doesn’t seem to be very accountable at all.

    This actually leads to something else I would suggest as well: suspensions for diving. That is not to say that every dive deserves a suspension but the panel could judge, subjectively of course, if a play were a dive. Who knows, maybe they could also look at players who turn their backs to the play to shelter the puck and that draw boarding calls (yes, that happens). For every dive, a point is given to that player. Once the player hits a certain amount of points (say, 5) the player is suspended for a game; this could be cumulative within a season and have longer suspensions for those players who continue to accumulate points. Off topic, I know. I’ll move on.

    Erin also made some great points:

    “Barring a few calls, most penalties are not black-white “did or did not happen.” Most happen on a continuum of illegality, from a tiny tap of the stick on a hip to a full-scale hooking hogtie.”

    This goes back to my first point about consistency between the regular season and playoffs. This is the consistent moaning about how the game is different but it provides an explanation why, in some cases, that teams that flourish during the regular season, are bounced fairly easily in the playoffs. From what I’ve watched, officials do not call all of the same obstructions in the playoffs that they might raise their arm for during the regular season. A team that uses its power play time efficiently during the regular season may notice a significant drop off in goals during the playoffs. Now this may be a result of many different factors but less power play time is one of those factors.

    My solution:
    Referee the regular season as you would a playoff game. I love the way playoff hockey is played: physical and grinding. The game changes so much from March 31st to April 15th every year that it has become frustrating to watch regular season hockey.

    Another quote from Erin that I find truth in:
    “Refereeing is an absurdly difficult job at the NHL level, and even the best guys are the subject of fan and team wrath at times. As long as the rules are subjective and up for human interpretation, someone will always been unhappy.”

    Remember, these guys are human, they might make mistakes. Heaven forbid you ever made a mistake in your life. Don’t expect these guys to be perfect.

  5. Epic reply, Sandwiches. Thanks

    I imagine that we agree on a lot of things that we have phrased differently, or where we have focused on different aspects of what I perceive to be similar underlying problems.

    I tried really hard to make it clear that my comments were not designed to rip on refs for missing a hooking call or buying into a dive. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the processes in place for dealing with refs who make up their own sets of rules (like the examples I mentioned), and the relationship between refs and the people who are supposed to be holding them accountable (like the Campbell example). The examples I gave weren’t designed to show that refs should be tarred and feathered for missing an offside call in a big game. The paragraph that starts out, “To be clear, I’m not talking about narrowly missed off-sides and close icing calls.” was designed to address this criticism.

  6. I’m very happy ref’s don’t have more responsibilty. With all the judgement mistakes
    they make. If they were soldiers or doctors
    there would be alot more dead every day…

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