Friday, February 10, 2012

Why do NHL officials suck this bad?

by sean gordon Globe and Mail Update

Here’s a touchy one, hope we don’t get fined by the league.

But several incidents over the last few days have dredged up a persistent, vexing question: why are NHL officials so bad?

The most egregious blunder this week was the non-call on Corey Perry’s overtime winner for the Ducks on Wednesday night after he plainly tripped Carolina’s Jussi Jokinen behind the net to create a turnover.

There were a couple of phantom goalie interference calls against the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins that negated goals - in the Blueshirts’ case a late tying goal against a division rival, New Jersey.

On Thursday night, the zebras missed at least one high-stick goal (on Long Island) and probably another in Newark.

That both stood up after replay makes it all the more puzzling.

And do we even need to bring up Clock-gate in L.A.?

In any case, some people in hockey are doing their best Peter Finch impression: they’re mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it any more.

But they’re also going to speak elliptically so as not to get socked in the wallet by the humourless suits at head office. To wit, one John Tortorella.

It’s always easy to blame incompetence, but what if the issue is the game itself?

Everyone always talks about how much faster the NHL has become since the lockout, and maybe it’s now moving too quickly to be adequately officiated by two refs.

What is already a fiendishly hard job is rendered nearly impossible to do well despite the best efforts of men who, by and large, are top professionals.

One offshoot of trying to keep up with the chaos is that refs develop an unusually close proximity to some players, usually veterans.

None of the foregoing in any way excuses blowing easy calls like the Perry situation.

But that incident does show how people will modify their behaviour - Perry had been slashed on the hand a few moments earlier but there had been no call.

Former NHL ref Kerry Fraser, he of the Alain Cote disallowed goal (1986) and Wayne Gretzky high-stick-that-wasn’t (1993) incidents, pulled the cover back on that whole can of worms in his TSN column.

Money quote: “In an attempt to be ‘fair’ you ultimately become an accountant trying to balance the books instead of a referee. Usually the second infraction you feel you must allow is worse than the first one.”

Footage from HBO’s 24/7 is particularly revealing - refs have conversations with players, who are often referred to by nickname, that have the feel of negotiations.

The NHL is a reputation league, and refs also sometimes make flash judgments influenced by a player’s rep.

Best example: Dan O’Rourke calling Erik Karlsson a diver in a conversation with Ottawa coach Paul MacLean - nice work Rourkie.

At least MacLean has big brass ones and smashed the usual omerta by going public and ratting him out.

So in addition to having competence issues with certain refs - ie. Tim Peel, Stephane Auger and, most egregiously, Chris Lee - the NHL is dealing with complicated psychology.

There are no easy fixes to this, but there are a couple of things the NHL could do.

First, they could be more transparent about ref discipline - the English Premier League issues lists of which refs and assistants have been dropped and why.

Teams can send players to the minors if they don’t perform, why shouldn’t refs suffer the same treatment?

Why not give refs from a lower league a little hope that they might gain access to the exclusive NHL club?

That seems callous and antithetical to hockey tradition, but maybe it’s a way to create distance between ref and player (although soccer players disrespect officials at least as much as hockey players).

More refs could be hired from European leagues, more resources could be spent on training and professional development at all levels - the minor pro and major junior leagues are also dealing with a dearth of top officials.

Another option would be to mike the refs like they do in international rugby - a sport where players rarely, if ever, talk back at the officials any more.

Rugby refs also explain how certain subjective rules - like the breakdown - are going to be called so it’s clear to both sides and the viewing public.

Make the soundtrack available to the television networks to use in replays - it might even clean up some of the homophobic and bigoted language that is tolerated all to often on the ice.

None of this, of course, will ever happen.

But here’s something that might, or at least should: remove some of the discretion and judgment calls that make refs’ lives harder.

Do away with touching the puck with a high stick or kicking it or punching it into the net.

Enforce unsportsmanlike and misconduct offences, make all contact with the head an automatic minor penalty, give a game misconduct to players who fight, enforce the instigator rule.

This will be met by fierce resistance by the refs, who it should be pointed out, nearly went on strike a season or two back.

But something needs to happen.

Credibility is hard-won but easily frittered away, the reputation league should want to avoid gaining a reputation for poor officiating.