It’s an annual rite of spring, as predictable as cherry blossoms in Washington DC, or freak snowstorms in Western Canada: Complaining about the state of NHL refereeing.
Every year, there’s a serious concern – especially among fans and especially on social media – that the officiating standard slips when the regular season ends and the playoffs begin. The referees will overlook an infraction that might earn a penalty between October and April but not after. Every year, there’s a hint that this year will be different.
Usually, when the dust settles and the officiating postmortems occur, the conclusion is: No, nothing actually changed.
Tacitly, the NHL acknowledged the problem in September, months after the Lightning won their second consecutive Stanley Cup, a run that included some highly publicized moments of refereeing inconsistency. The greatest culprit related to crosschecking and the number of times egregious crosschecks that seemed like obvious infractions breezed right past the referees’ eyes and went unpenalized.
To its credit, the NHL – which rarely acknowledges an issue relating to refereeing – did so in this case. A directive issued at the start of this season, published on its own website, made cracking down on crosschecking a primary point of emphasis heading into the 2021-22 season. And when NHL officials gathered for their annual preseason training camps they were treated to a review of some of last year’s missed calls from the boss himself, director of officiating Stephen Walkom. Essentially, Walkom walked the group through a number of examples of plays that went unpenalized in the playoffs that they would be asked to call this season. This was non-negotiable.
Stricter cross-checking enforcement would be strictly enforced by hockey ops.
According to TSN analyst Craig Button, that mission was generally accomplished over the course of the 2021-22 regular season.
Moreover, Button also believed the stricter standard will carry over into the playoffs. It means, for example, the type of uproar that rose last year when an emphatic slash by the Islanders’ Scott Mayfield on Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov went controversially unpunished, shouldn’t happen again this year.
“I’m going to use history to predict what may happen in the future,” Button said. “Whenever we’ve had the crackdowns before – on slashes to the hand, and before that, for hooking, holding and interference – they continued into the playoffs. They never stopped. Players knew that the standard had been set.
“So, in my view, the crosschecking calls are not going to stop this time either.”
Generally speaking, NHL coaches and general managers are loath to get into any official conversation about the refereeing standard because they’re mindful of an NHL policy to fine anyone $25,000 if they are overly critical of what they perceive to be a blown call. Mostly, what they want is basic consistency – from the first minute of a game until the last and from the first game of the postseason until the end.
One NHL coach suggested that while it’s hard to grade NHL officials collectively, he would give them a passing grade overall and full marks for enforcing the league’s crosschecking crackdown.
“People bitch and complain that come playoffs, the referees will put their whistles away,” said the coach, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the league’s de facto gag order. “I don’t see that happening this year. I think it’s going to be mandated that some of the shit they let go in previous years is going to be addressed.
“I still think the best referees are the ones that have a feel for the game and a rapport with the teams. When you’re adding young guys in all the time – it’s the same for officials as it is for players. The one thing that’s not in their repertoires is consistency because the young refs are learning too.”
To his point, the NHL has seen a significant changing of the refereeing guard over the past handful of years. Just within the last month, two respected veteran referees – Dean Morton and Brad Meier – worked their final games. Tim Peel didn’t work another game after a high-profile incident a year ago when he was caught on a live mike assessing what appeared to be a make-up call on the predators.
Two other experienced refs – Pierre Racicot and Brad Watson – have also retired within the past couple of years, which opened the door for four new referees who joined the NHL staff this past fall. All worked primarily in the AHL this year, but made their NHL refereeing debuts within the past month or so: Carter Sandlak, Justin Kea, Cody Beach, and Jordan Samuels-Thomas.
The best advice the NHL coach can give these young referees is to develop good communication skills.
“When you don’t communicate well as a referee, what fills the void is negativity,” the coach said. “That’s what the older guys were so good about. If you treated them with respect, you got respect back. The good ones don’t add gasoline to the fire. If you’re crossing the line, you’ll get a warning, ‘Shut your mouth, or you know what’s coming next.’ That usually will shut the coaches up. Respect is earned, but it has to go both ways. Our best referees in the NHL do that on a regular basis. Sometimes, the egos of the younger guys get in the way and they’ll tune you out and that becomes problematic.”
Back in April, the view from the other side was compellingly stated by former NHL referee Dave Jackson, now a rules analyst for ESPN, on an episode of “The Athletic Hockey Show.”
When Jackson moved to the broadcast booth he also joined the world of social media – which requires a thick skin even at the best of times. If you’re an NHL official, it’s worse.
“The officials are not supposed to have Twitter or Facebook accounts and now I can see why,” Jackson said. “Because if I’d had Twitter when I was on the ice, it would have been soul-crushing. Some criticism is justified… but other criticism just seems to be a pile-on, from people who have no idea what’s going on.
“What bothers me the most is not the criticism of the call. We can all agree, a call gets missed or maybe a call is made that shouldn’t have been made. What bothers me is, the opinions of people who say what the referee’s motivation is for missing the call.”
It’s the integrity question, in other words. That a missed call wasn’t necessarily an honest mistake, but a deliberate attempt by an official to affect the outcome of a game.
“It’s, ‘He doesn’t want that team to win, he’s holding a grudge, the league tells him not to make these calls’ – and nothing could be further from the truth,” Jackson said. “A missed call is a missed call, whether from a lack of focus, a lack of preparation, bad positioning, bad luck – that’s why the call got missed. No other reason.”
Nor was Jackson sure why the term “game management” has taken on such negative connotations.
“If people take the time to read the rulebook, there are almost no rules in there that don’t have the wording, ‘in the referee’s judgement.’ And that means the referee is provided with a ton of latitude in how to assess these calls and how to use his judgment of him.
“So, if you look at a game where the score’s out of hand and you have two players looking to get at each other to have a fight – and with eight minutes left, you know they’re going to be a problem for you the rest of the game – well, you want to manage that situation, right? You give them misconduct penalties. That’s a form of game management – but that’s not wrong or taboo. That’s just smart officiating. That’s making everybody in the game safer and possibly protects both players from lengthy suspensions.
“But obviously, people equal game management with ‘the referee is cheating.’ That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Overall, it’s been a physically challenging year for NHL officials. Several had significant injuries – such as Michael Marcovic’s broken jaw. At one point in December, 13 officials were in COVID-19 protocols.
“We tend to want the officials to be like machines and run perfectly,” Button said. “We’re forgiving of teams that have to play three games in four nights, but what about officials who have to work three games in four nights? There’s no officiating coach that can come out and say, ‘yeah, we didn’t have our legs tonight.’ So, we become accepting of that when it happens to players, but officials have to work three games in four nights and they have to travel too.”
There’s little attention paid to an official’s workload, but Jackson provided a little insight into what that looked like. On average, a referee would work around 75 games per season, which kept him on the road from 20-to-22 days a month. Jackson recently reviewed his monthly statement from Marriott hotels and discovered he’d stayed in the hotel chain for the equivalent of 11 years of his life
According to Jackson, everyone who criticizes officials should try it once just to experience what it is like.
“It’d be great if everybody who coached minor hockey also had to referee minor hockey. Because I think once you’ve done it once – just one time – I think you’d really get a different perspective, and have a lot more sympathy, for how tough the job is.”
Officials get graded after every game. That scorecard builds over the course of the season and ultimately determines who gets to work in the playoffs. On a staff of 34, only 20 begin the playoffs and the numbers are whittled down in every successive round. It’s a war of attrition for them, just as it is for playoff teams. By the end, only the ones that grade the highest remain standing and earn the bonus money along the way.
“Sixteen teams miss the playoffs, so there’s going to be a whole bunch of the lower-performing officials who aren’t going to make the playoff cut either,” Button said. “By that criterium, ostensibly, we should have a higher standard of officiating, just as we’ll have a higher standard of play once the bottom 16 teams get eliminated.”
No playoff is ever free of officiating controversies. But Button remains convinced that adhering to the crosschecking mandate will eliminate many of the issues that arose last season.
“The managers are the ones that dictate to hockey ops how the game is called,” Button said. “When they get behind an initiative, it’s easy to enforce. When they waffle and hesitate, that’s when the standard changes. I don’t think they’re waffling here or backing down. I think it’ll be the same. Stephen Walkom does not set the standard. He upholds whatever the GMs want the standard to be. And I think the managers are behind this.”
(Top photo: Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)