NHL officiating is in trouble. Teams and fans around the league are complaining about inconsistencies; missed calls on important plays like the one on the Scott Gomez goal last night, or phantom calls like a four-minute minor on Ian White of the leafs on a high stick administered by the victim's own teammate earlier in the season. That's not new. Teams and fans have been complaining about the reffing since the first organized game a hundred and fifty years ago.
These days though, there seem to be more and bigger problems with officiating than ever. I suspect there are a couple of different reasons for that perception. First, video replay leaves little room for human error. Every mistake an official makes is blown up in super-slow motion from eight different camera angles. People make mistakes, but those mistakes are magnified when they're available to be watched and re-watched at the critic's leisure. Fifty years ago, Red Storey used to just take the puck and drop it at centre. End of controversy. It's different now.
Second, parity in the league has teams fighting for every point. When an official blows a call that costs in the standings, it's exaggerated by the fans because it could end up meaning a team makes the playoffs or does not.
But, the biggest reason why I think it appears there are more officiating errors than ever is because that perception is true. The major factor at play here is the two-referee system, which requires more officials to be performing at a high level than there were ten years ago. This is complicated by the retirements of several high-profile veteran refs, and further complicated by the system's relegation of the linesmen to mere observers.
I just finished reading Ray Scapinello's biography, "Between the Lines." The long-time linesman worked in both the one-ref and two-ref systems and is a pretty good judge of how things changed with the introduction of the extra zebra. Here's what he writes:
"Since the institution of the two-referee system in 2000, the linesmen's ability to help out with certain calls has been limited; the idea being that just as the refs do their jobs, the linesmen should focus on theirs. The intent is to make for more ice coverage, to cover obstruction more closely while having an extra set of eyes for the gnarly stuff behind the play. Now linesmen can only call major penalties and bench minors. They used to be able to assist on minors or if blood was drawn. Now, hypothetically, if a linesman sees someone spear a guy in the back of the leg, and the ref misses it, the linesman can't call it. Even if the guy who gets speared turns around, drops the gloves and beats up the spearing perpetrator, the linesman still can't mention the spear. If the guy who did the spearing turtles, his team might end up with a five-minutes power play. The coach might say 'Scampy, you saw that. You saw the spear.' Yeah, I did, but there's not a damn thing I can do about it."
When a green ref is working a game and blows a call, it would help to have the input of more veteran linesmen. But that's not allowed now. Scapinello also describes the other inherent problem with the two-ref system, which he believes leads to a lot of the confusion and perception of inconsistency on the ice:
"(Under the old system) teams knew what was going to be called. Whether it was good, bad or indifferent, they knew Ron Wicks was going to call a game this way; Bill McCreary was going to call a game that way. With two officials, it's a couple of different personalities. The way I look at a hook, and you look at a hook, it may be one or not. You call it down in your end, but if it happens down in my end there's a good chance I won't call it because I don't think it's a hook. The players get confused."
All this is going to be further complicated with the anticipated influx of even more rookie refs this year and next. Last season, veterans Rob Shick and Don Koharski retired. When this year ends, Kerry Fraser, Dan Marouelli and Bill McCreary will be joining them. Those five guys are all thousand-plus NHL game referees, and that experience will be sorely missed. (Even if some Habs fans hate Fraser, he's better than some of the greenhorns.) The three retiring this year are working a reduced schedule, while spending the extra time mentoring young refs. None of them will be working the playoffs. Former NHL officiating boss Stephen Walkom says he's back on the ice this year because he missed the excitement of the game. While that may be true to a degree, I'd say there's a better than even chance he's been asked to come out of retirement because the NHL knows it's got a serious shortage of experienced refs this year. That's why guys like Chris Lee continue to get work. They might be bad, but they're better than some of the alternatives. When it comes down to it, the NHL officiating department are beggars who can't be all that choosy.
So, the question is, considering the obvious issues with the two-ref system and the shortage of qualified refs, how can the NHL make things better? There are a few things the league can do, I think.
First, give the linesmen back the power to make a call a young ref might miss if he's out of position. Many times, a veteran linesman can save a team and a ref from a big mistake if anyone is allowed to ask him.
Second, eliminate the "intent to blow the whistle" rule. He either blows the whistle or he does not. Refereeing is subject to human error. Let part of that include a ref not managing to blow the whistle as quickly as the idea crosses his mind. He's human. He didn't get a chance to blow the whistle. Goal counts. Or, he lost sight of the puck, he blew the whistle, goal doesn't count. It's pretty simple. Allowing a ref to backtrack by saying he "meant" to blow the whistle adds a completely ridiculous degree of discretion to the game.
Third, institute a challenge system. Each team would get one chance to challenge a call during a game. There may be many nights when a challenge is never used. But in games like the one against the Penguins last night, a coach should have the opportunity to have the play reviewed. If the replay shows the coach is right, the decision is reversed, if not, the faceoff comes back into his team's end.
Finally, the league needs to work harder at developing good officials. The game is one of speed and inevitable mistakes, but refereeing requires talent, just like being a top player does. The problem is, many talented young officials quit because they don't get the encouragement they need to continue in the face of on-ice abuse and fan aggression. There are signs the NHL is working to address the development of quality officials. Terry Gregson has taken over for Walkom at the league office, and he's already recognized the issue.
"We need to work more with Hockey Canada and USA Hockey to get the word out that officiating is a great way to stay involved in the game," he said after his appointment in September. "If you talk to former junior and college players, they often say, 'Gee, I never thought about that.' So, we want to reach out. We want to get people to talk about officiating and the positions that are available.
"Now not everyone will make a career of it, but we can't use a four-man system in the AHL and juniors now because we need more officials. It is an integral part of our game.
"I would like to see 15- and 16-year-old kids try it in practice and see if they like it. We have people looking for that kind of potential."
It's a good first step, but the NHL needs to be proactive on some other solutions to refereeing controversies as well. When you're dealing with people, there will always be mistakes made. But technology exists to keep those mistakes to the very minimum possible. Combining the best people with the best off-ice tools available will improve officiating. The league just needs to decide to do so and take the steps to make it happen, because right now, it's not nearly good enough.