The National Hockey League is facing a major crisis regarding the integrity of its in-game officiating, following a hot mic incident involving referee Tim Peel (apologies for language):
Maybe if you're a mic'd up ref, you shouldn't express how you wanted to call a penalty against a team earlier in the game, changing how you ref the rest of the game.— Matt Best (@bestofmatt) March 24, 2021
"It wasn't much but I wanted to get a fuckin' penalty against Nashville early in the..."#Preds #LGRW pic.twitter.com/6fZImkdqLr
Peel’s remark confirms what fans and observers of the league have long known: officials try to avoid a lopsided assignment of penalties within a game, meaning that some late-game infractions go uncalled or instead they call some ticky-tack stuff to “even things out.”
Jeff Veillette of The Faceoff Circle wrote about this phenomenon earlier this season, showing that a team like Columbus neither takes nor draws many penalties, while a team like Toronto is on the high end of both. Veillette also wrote about the Peel incident, and I suggest you read both articles.
Bottom line: it’s absurd that this is a thing in hockey, and even more absurd that it’s been accepted for so long as just being part of the game. No other sport seeks this kind of penalty balanced. Some teams are just better or worse at getting the calls! In hockey, a team which possess the puck more often and moves their legs more should end up with more power plays as they draw penalties. A team which is more often on defense and is caught out of position should be penalized more.
This is just one area where reform is needed, however. Before I get to some more, let me clarify that I have a lot of respect for how difficult it is to be an NHL on-ice official. Not only are they having to make split-second calls in a game that is happening at a fast pace, but they have to do so while being expert skaters and avoiding getting hit by players, sticks, or pucks. When I watch a game in person I’m in awe at how well they manage to stay mostly invisible during play. With that in mind, here are some ways we can help them:
Add a fifth official above the ice
There is a lot going on, and it can be too much for the four on-ice officials to see everything. Let’s add another official who can have a wider view of the action — without worrying about getting in the way or getting hit. They could be in communication with the officials on the ice, and signal when they see a penalty, or something which warrants review at the next stoppage. They could also be in review with the replay room in Toronto to coordinate those reviews. Let’s avoid a fiasco like what happened to the Blue Jackets against Carolina earlier in the season.
Fix the replay process
Speaking of replay, let’s make this process better. It’s important to get a call right, but too often it ruins the flow of the game. Think of those times where an arena starts celebrating a goal, only to put the party on hold for a few minutes while Toronto figures out whether the goal everyone just saw should actually count.
- Put a time limit on every review. If you can’t figure it out in 30-60 seconds (once you have the right angle on the play), then it’s not conclusive and the call on the ice stands.
- To help expedite that, make the reviews no slower than half speed. We’re getting way too picky if we’re going frame by frame to see if a skate was one pixel offside. The point of replay should be to catch something that the officials missed, not something that would have been impossible for them to see in real time with the naked eye.
- Have a statute of limitations for offsides. If the goal is scored more than 10 seconds after a player was offside, then the defense had plenty of time to erase the advantage.
- Give the off-ice official more discretion. Why wait for Toronto? Give the fifth official some monitors and let him review certain non-goal calls.
- Review high-sticking. This seems to be one the refs get wrong most often, sending someone to the box when it was someone else’s stick who made contact, or there was no contact at all and the “victim” embellished.
Have more turnover in the referee corps
Fans have long considered Tim Peel to be one of the worst refs in the NHL. How could he hold on to his job so long? As they mentioned on the Puck Soup podcast this week, Peel never got a Stanley Cup Final assignment, which is reserved for the best of the best. So, those making the assignments knew he wasn’t good enough. At some point, being not good enough should be sufficient to give a chance to someone new. There is no shortage of hockey leagues around the world to serve as proving grounds. This league features the best hockey players in the world; why shouldn’t it have the very best officials from all over the world?
Furthermore, as the pool of players becomes younger, faster, and stronger, we need officials who can keep pace. It may necessary for careers to be shorter than they have been. Some could transition from on-ice to off-ice as their physical abilities fade.
We’ve previously seen the league make certain rules a point of emphasis. A few years back, it was slashing which got called a lot more often. Players eventually adjusted and the goal was achieved. We need to do the same with cross-checking, which is another very dangerous play. Too often players get away with it during scrums in the crease, or collisions along the boards.
It’s a physical game and some injuries are inevitable even from clean hits. But we need to protect the players from avoidable, illegal actions. Give leeway for body-to-body hits, but crack down on contact made with the stick, or ANY contact to the head.
Finally, maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to put a former goon in charge of punishing the goons of today. The biggest issue is there’s no consistency in the punishments that are handed out. There needs to be a written guideline for which kinds of hits result in what length of suspension. There needs to be harsher punishment for repeat offenders like Tom Wilson. They need to judge the hit on its own merits, and separate it from the result. We’re trying to avoid injuries, but sometimes injuries result from clean hits, and some bad hits don’t result in an injury. That shouldn’t let an offender off the hook.
That’s enough from me now. What are your thoughts on the Peel situation? What changes would you make to how the league is officiated?