What’s wrong with NHL playoff officiating? (HINT: It’s not the officials)

Anybody who has been paying attention to the NHL over the past few years can identify the most common source of complaints: the officiating. With the playoffs in full swing, abuse is raining down upon NHL referees from all corners. Last week, Andy Dudones wrote an excellent piece for thehockeywriters.com decrying the unrelenting “ref-bashing” that is dominating conversation in the hockey community. If you aren’t familiar with the path to becoming an NHL official, the article is an informative introduction to the team of sixty-six physical specimens who have spent decades toiling away in the minor leagues, honing their skills, before being given the opportunity to join the NHL’s officiating corps. Dudones’ conclusion is that the NHL’s officials are only human, that they will make mistakes, and they’re doing their best. While he’s not incorrect, the reality is that the quality of officiating in the NHL is not acceptable. However, the problem is not with the officials; they are the best people available for the job and they are doing their best. The problem stems from the fact that the NHL has accepted the convention that a referee’s penalty standard should change based on the circumstances of the game; that a game in overtime or during the playoffs should be officiated differently than a game in regulation time or during the regular season.

NHL referees

Officiating is about confidence; even though an official is part of a four (or three)-person team, an official is isolated when he’s on the ice. Each official will make a thousand individual, split-second decisions over the course of sixty minutes. An official’s confidence comes from, among other things, his ability to make decisions and decision-making ability, like any other skill, improves with repetition. By the time a referee joins the professional ranks, he is an expert decision-maker, having made millions of decisions over the course of his career. He is supremely confident in his ability to judge goals, penalties, high-sticks, and hand-passes, all in a split second. As an official progresses from minor hockey thru the ranks of junior hockey, he will have to adjust to different rules in each league; however, the basic penalty standard remains constant. It is from this proficiency that officials acquire the necessary confidence.

When an official reaches the NHL, he is subjected to constant, micro-level review of all aspects of his game, including penalty standard. It could be argued that this level of control is necessary in order to maintain consistency at the professional level. However, anyone who has watched a substantial amount of NHL hockey knows that consistency is a scare commodity in the league, and has probably wondered aloud why, with the level of review that referees undergo, there is not more consistency game-to-game.

When referees are instructed to alter their penalty standard based on the circumstances of the game, any hope of consistency goes out the window. A referee has made a thousand elbowing calls in his career; he is an expert at calling elbowing penalties according to the rules of the game. Now, he has to adopt a completely different standard; one that isn’t written down anywhere and exists only in the minds of those who think that playoff hockey should be officiated differently. This means that an official no longer has the confidence to make those split-second decisions. An official cannot do his job if he second-guesses himself, but an official will second-guess himself if he doesn’t have confidence in his ability to make decisions. NHL officials do not, and cannot, have confidence in their decision making abilities. Especially during the playoffs.

While the referees struggle with their decision-making abilities, the players are suffering the consequences. Regardless of whether a player is perceived to be “dirty” or “clean”, no hockey player wants to be sitting in the penalty box. In order to stay out of the penalty box, they need to know what will be called a penalty and what will not. When players “test” the standard – a euphemism for committing a foul to see if they get away with it – and the referees call the penalty, it reaffirms the standard of officiating. When the standard is altered based on the circumstances of the game, the players are lost; they have no idea what will be called and what will not. Although players will espouse the folk “wisdom” that playoff hockey is different and should be officiated differently, alteration of the standard does not benefit them. If the standard for elbowing (or any other penalty) has been the same for eighty-two games and is suddenly relaxed during the playoffs, it is effectively encouraging players to use their elbows. They will do so, and the degree of violence and recklessness will increase, until someone commits a foul so egregious that the referee decides he must call a penalty. At which point, it seems as though the elbowing penalty is coming “out of the blue”; nobody was expecting it and yet, in a game with much on the line, one team is unexpectedly short-handed.

It is not in the nature of any sport to demand a certain standard from September to March, and then a different standard from April to June. The NHL has evolved so much in the past decade, but the near-ubiquitous concept that the standard of officiating should change based on the circumstances of the game is a relic that has yet to be retired. Until this idea is eradicated, there will never be consistency in NHL officiating. It is not up to the officials, this is not their fault; they are being paid to enforce the rules as determined by the NHL. The NHL must decide that they are prepared to take a leading role in changing the attitude of the wider hockey community in order to establish consistency in their league. Until then, the officiating will continue to be wildly inconsistent and complaints will continue to flow, from coaches, pundits, and fans alike.

Dan is a Level IV Hockey Canada referee, officiating in the PJHL, BCIHL, and BCMML. Since 2011, he has been serving as the Director of Officials Development and as the Assistant Referee-in-Chief at the Vancouver Thunderbird Minor Hockey Association. In this time, he has instructed over 40 on-ice instructional sessions. He has also had the privilege of supervising 2 BC Hockey Championships, instructing at 2 BC Hockey Summer Schools, and has been a HCOP Course Conductor since 2013.