1. 4.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Why is the Best NHL Referee "None"? (part 1 of 2)

If it’s a day ending in “y”, it must be time to discuss the sorry state of NHL officiating. Sadly/Unfortunately/Infuriatingly (take your pick), it seems there’s much more to complain about this season than in any other post-Lockout campaign. In a recent survey of the NHLPA, “none” was the most popular answer to the question, “Who is the best NHL referee?” There’s a reason for that.

Today, in Part One of this post, we'll identify the problem(s). Because it's just plain bad policy to gripe without also offering solutions, Part Two will deliver five ways in which to improve NHL officiating. For the sake of brevity, we will only discuss the bad on-ice calls, and save the NHL's mercurial suspension "policy" for another time. With that, let the dissection begin! Here’s a sampling of what we’ve been subjected to this season:

Friday, 4 FEB 2011 – Columbus @ Detroit: Henrik Zetterberg gets tangled up with goalie/teammate Jimmy Howard, allowing Columbus’ Rick Nash to shoot the puck into an open net. Referee Francois St. Laurent signals “no goal” and sends Derick Brassard to the sin bin for goalie interference.

Wednesday, 2 FEB 2011 – Detroit @ Ottawa: Chris Neil stuffs the puck into the Detroit net during a scrum in the crease, then inadvertently pulls the puck back out of the net. Puck ends up underneath Jimmy Howard. After a War Room review, it’s “no goal”, because “…the puck was under the goalie, who was then pushed into the net.” Replays clearly showed this was not the case. Neil’s goal would’ve tied the game at 6 with just under eight minutes remaining in the 3rd; instead, Detroit adds an empty-netter to win, 7-5.

Wednesday, 5 JAN 2011 – Atlanta @ Florida: With Atlanta leading, 3-2, late in the 3rd, Florida Captain Bryan McCabe scores the tying goal…or not: Somehow, both the on-ice officials and the War Room missed Atlanta goalie Ondrej Pavelec fishing the puck out of the back of the net after the whistle. Atlanta wins, 3-2.

Tuesday, 28 DEC 2010 – Boston @ Tampa Bay: Game tied, 3-3, late in the 3rd, when Steven Stamkos is sent to the box for “Boarding” – in this case, a clean, shoulder-on-shoulder hit. Boston scores on the ensuing PP, wins 4-3.

Tuesday, 26 OCT 2010 – Florida @ Toronto: At 11:02 of the 3rd period, with the score tied at 1, Colton Orr flattens Panther goalie Scott Clemmensen. Tim Brent sends the puck toward the now-empty net, and it deflects off Orr and in. Former NHL Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom says it’s a “good goal”, Leafs go on to win, 3-1.

Sunday, 10 OCT 2010 – Florida @ Edmonton: Florida trails, 2-0, early in the 2nd period, when Marty Reasoner scores for Florida to make it 2-1. 1:09 later, Oiler Shawn Horcoff kicks the puck past Tomas Vokoun. The War Room says “good goal” after a lengthy review, Edmonton goes on to win, 3-2. Horcoff’s “goal” is the game-winner.

Anyone notice a pattern here? Before we get to that, Dirk Hoag at On The Forecheck had a very interesting post last week regarding post-Lockout suspensions, which asks the question, “Do the NHL’s Original Six franchises receive special treatment?” Again, we aren’t discussing suspensions today, but Hoag’s post caused the proverbial light bulb to come on over my head. What do I mean? Well, about that pattern…

In five of the six examples above, the beneficiary of the bad call was either an Original Six or a Canadian club. Likewise, in five of six examples, the party which was injured by the bad call was a non-traditional market club. This, combined with Hoag’s post, raised a question: In the eyes of NHL officials, is there a distinct hierarchy of teams? If so, it probably looks something like this:

1. Original Six clubs
2. Non-Original Six Canadian clubs
3. “Traditional Market” American clubs (i.e., Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Buffalo, etc)
4. “Non-Traditional Market” clubs (Phoenix, Columbus, Florida, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Nashville, Dallas, Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose)

Am I suggesting NHL officials are biased? Absolutely. It’s common knowledge around the league that rookies – both players and coaches – have to “pay their dues” before referees will give them the same treatment veterans receive. If refs are biased against rookies, why wouldn’t they be biased against non-traditional market teams? After all, they’re only human, and overwhelmingly Canadian:

On the NHLOA website, the list of 39 referees includes 1 Swede, 6 Americans and 32 Canadians (note: four referees have no birthplace listed, but three of them have distinctly French-Canadian names, so we’ll call them all Canadian). Of 33 linesmen on the site, 1 has no birthplace listed (I’ve requested a copy of his birth certificate from Hawaii), 8 are American and 24 are Canadian.

Why does nationality matter? Because the overwhelming majority of Canadian hockey fans are offended by the very idea of NHL clubs in non-traditional markets, just as American baseball fanatics are still upset over the Toronto Blue Jays’ World Series wins in 1992 and 1993. While I’m not suggesting Canadian-born NHL referees and the War Room staff in Toronto are actively conspiring to keep the “non-trads” down, I think it’s safe to say their feelings toward those clubs mirror those of Canadian hockey fans, ranging from “barely concealed hostility” through “general contempt” to “It’s Florida/Atlanta/Phoenix/et al; who really cares?” How else can some of these calls/non-calls be explained? Put another way, why aren’t the Torontos of the world victimized by bad calls as often as the Floridas?

Taking it a step further, only two of the American NHL referees were born outside of traditional hockey markets: Dennis LaRue (Savannah, GA) and Brad Meier (Dayton, OH). Among American linesmen, only one doesn’t come from a traditional hockey area (Bryan Pancich, the pride of Great Falls, MT). American hockey fans in traditional markets are largely guilty of the same biases as their Canadian counterparts.

Bias aside, NHL officiating has never been more than "adequate", and this season, is much closer to "putrid". A combination of inexperienced referees (relative to past seasons) and increased game speed are partly to blame. What can be done about it? Tune in tomorrow for Part Two…

Take me back to On Goal Analysis.

No comments: