NHL Officials Need to be More Accountable
Posted by Neil Corbett under Opinion on May 28, 2012
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.