Post-lockout officiating: is it rust, or something else?

Published On February 14, 2013 | By Zoë Hayden

Every sport has officials who facilitate the game day in and day out. Their ostensible role is to ensure that the rules are followed so that the outcome of the game cannot be attributed to misdeed or unfairness. Fans decry the “ref” on a regular basis, and they do so in the NHL constantly.

If you’re at the arena, you’ll see every level of this. Some fans see a beautiful play form on the rush with their star player or favorite rookie with tons of room to take a one-timer only to have the play ruled offside (quite rightly), and they boo the call for no legitimate reason. Personally, seeing people blame the official on a regular basis for the outcome of a game puts a sour taste in my mouth. It’s not good sportsmanship.

But fans as well as the media are well within their right to analyze and question the way calls go. The NHL certainly has enough gray area to make it a ripe topic for discussion. And with 82 games for each of 30 teams in a regular season and a plethora of small infractions in the rulebook, there are a lot of calls made by officials on any given night. The ratio of calls that go unnoticed to big, controversial calls (such as those that determine goals, ejections, hits to the head) is extremely high.

Last week, Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy made a convincing argument that the National Hockey League needs to be transparent about how they evaluate and discipline their referees for “blown calls.”

A call that is literally “blown” is probably a big one, a controversial one, that potentially altered the game’s outcome without opportunity for recourse. The two calls he cites were ejections for hits to the head that did not actually happen, both of which were later rescinded by the NHL. If the officials who made those calls (and similar ones) were disciplined, Wyshynski argues, we should know about it instead of having to assume and find out who the best referees and linesmen are when the playoff rotation is released.

Officiating in the NHL has long been inconsistent, but transparency about how the referees and linesmen are dealt with when they make errors would likely change that to some degree. The “blown calls” could be subject to actual discussion as opposed to a litany of bloggers and beat reporters pointing it out and, in most cases, receiving no feedback. The discussion has always been a bit one-sided.

But what about all those little calls, the ones that may or may not have been, but because it was just a two-minute minor, no one really looked into it?  Fans and broadcasters alike love waiting for the announcement of who is going to the box, waiting patiently for the replay, and engaging in a good impassioned shouting session: “That wasn’t a trip!  That definitely wasn’t a trip!” It’s part of watching, part of commentating.

One of the most intriguing NHL number tools online is ESPN’s stat tracker, which can tell you how many times a penalty was called (among many other things). This season, the number of calls in general seems to be on the rise compared to last season by at least two or so penalty minutes per game, based on a random sampling of average PIM per game (number of total season PIM divided by number of games played).

For example, the league leader in minor penalties last season, the Philadelphia Flyers, committed infractions that earned them on average, 16.07 minutes of penalties per game. This year’s leader in minors, the Montréal Canadiens, is already committing them at a rate of 22.55 minutes per game. (And, even though it’s the Flyers, no, instances of “five minutes for fighting” aren’t skewing the results because major penalties such as fighting are excluded from this statistic.)

Boarding penalties, which are tracked by ESPN as “majors” even when they are only for two minutes, were called a total of 336 times last season over the course of 2460 total games. With 167 games played at the time of this writing, it has already been called 64 times. That’s 19% the amount of boarding calls in a little over 6% of comparative game time. With so many intangibles at work in a hockey game, stats rarely prove much beyond who won, but they can be suggestive of trends at work.

Of course, it’s still early. This is by no means definitive evidence of anything, but combine that with the nebulous realm of NHL officiating in general and anecdotal evidence from fans and journalists who seem to think they are hearing more strange whistles than usual and a case could be made that the already-subjective world of NHL penalties is getting a bit rowdy.

It could be rust–officials had the same break that players had from being in “game shape” and may be adjudging situations differently now than perhaps they would have been before. It was an abrupt start to the season with not a lot of time to mentally prepare.

In addition, with much of the controversy surrounding calls like boarding and interference (which can be interpreted in a variety of ways) as well as head-shots, it could be that a desire to “crack down” on bad penalties is resulting in more calls than usual–some totally and unquestionably legitimate, and others less so.

Regardless of the reason, it will be worth watching to see how the atmosphere of officiating in the NHL develops over this shortened season. There has always been the “unofficial knowledge” that something that is a penalty at the beginning of the season might not a penalty anymore in April or May, that the penalties get a little tighter.  Will it be the same this year?

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About The Author

Zoë Hayden is a 22-year-old writer from Hopwood, Pennsylvania currently living in Boston. She is a graduate of Emerson College and enjoys covering hockey, international sports tournaments, technology, history, science, and gender issues. You can find her on Twitter: @zoeclaire_