Whether it’s the International Ice Hockey Federation, the National Hockey League, the Canadian Hockey League, or the American Hockey League the question remains the same: How do you solve the inconsistencies in officiating? Most infuriating to fans isn’t that the inconsistencies are visible from game to game, but from shift to shift.
When league after league moved from the one referee system to the two man system, it watered down the pool of highly qualified referees. Think about every league that virtually doubled its officiating staff within a very short time period and it’s easy to see how it’s become watered down.
Moving back to a one man referee system isn’t a solution. In today’s faster game, it would be impossible for one referee to keep up with the game. Some circles are calling for giving linesmen more power to call penalties. While linesmen can call some penalties, those they can whistle a play down for are black and white with no grey area.
Every league spends time with its officials during the preseason reviewing videos and clarifying what is and isn’t a penalty. But on the ice it becomes a matter of interpretation. Many times we’ve seen the “back referee” make a call from 100 feet away when the referee closest to the play doesn’t deem it worthy of a call. And what we then get is that referee trying to find any reason remotely possible to “even the call”. Adding two more sets of eyes to interpret what happens on the ice can only escalate this back and forth.
One solution to these varying interpretations (and I’ll admit we won’t see the difference overnight) is to go with “officiating teams.” In other words, the same 4 on ice officials work together consistently. The benefit would be that over a period of time, the referees would learn from each other and eventually decide among themselves what is and isn’t a penalty and eventually come to the same interpretation. Players would learn the tendencies of those tandems and wouldn’t be left scratching their heads as to why a penalty in the first period was deemed a penalty by one ref while it wasn’t in the second period by the other ref. Repetition breeds familiarity.
There are others out there that are suggesting that only the referee who is in the offensive zone where the play is can call a penalty. With all due respect, that is just ludicrous. It is the responsibility of the referee in the offensive zone to follow the play, or the puck and when he does that there is no way he can keep an eye on all things happening. What we’ll see is an increase in non-called infractions away from the play, something the back referee is supposed to be a deterrent too.
While it won’t eliminate the bad call, or non-call, the solution to those calls, non-calls affecting the outcome of the game is a coach’s challenge. Of course there are those that complain that it will slow down the game.
The NHL’s version of video replay, the centralization of those replays is the envy of every sports league in North America – see Major League Baseball copying the NHL format. The NHL has multiple sets of eyes on every play of every single game on any given night and will in most cases have completed their review before you can say “we’d better review that.” But of course, the debate will be do we put video screens in the penalty box for the refs to review themselves or do you let it be solved by Toronto?
Letting Toronto handle it will be taking the interpretation away from the referees but will be faster than letting the referees review it themselves and make their call. But isn’t the point of challenging the referee’s call to have someone else interpreting it? Does ego come into play and will a referee making the wrong call reverse his judgement? More on that later.
So, how many challenges do you allow a team?
Any league will tell you that getting the call on the ice correct is paramount. Therefore, logic would dictate that if getting it right is the ultimate goal, then anytime a team feels that the call on the ice was the wrong call, and then there should be no limit.
How do you prevent teams from abusing the challenge?
Obviously, without some sort of deterrent, there will be coaches using the challenge to their advantage – such as using it as a time out. To prevent that, you give the team asking for a review a minor penalty (maybe even a one minute penalty) for delay of game for an incorrect challenge- much like a minor penalty for asking for a stick measurement and getting it wrong.
As for the ego, read what former NHL referee Kerry Fraser wrote on TSN
In the early inception of the two-referee system, younger, competent officials were elevated to the NHL level on a fulltime basis. There were certainly different levels of refereeing experience and player acceptability as a result. The league wanted a yardstick as to which referee in this system called a penalty so they had the off-ice crew record this as an internal statistic.
It didn't matter if both referees had their arm up on an infraction (as we often see). The ref that went to the penalty box and assessed it was recorded in the stats. While it was silly, it created a competition one night for my young ref partner in Madison Square Garden that I didn't take too kindly to.
The first few penalties were directly in my area of coverage and very close to me. As I raised my arm on the delay, so did my partner. As soon as the offending team touched the puck, I blew my whistle as did my partner. At this point (when both arms were raised, the refs are to confer and make sure that they both identified the same infraction). My young partner raced to the penalty bench without consultation to assess the infraction.
This guy sprinted to the box on the first four penalties of the game. On the fifth infraction, an interference penalty that occurred down the wall away from the play when I was the back referee, I raised my arm immediately. I then checked over at my partner, who was correctly focused on the action around the puck and therefore did not see the infraction that I was calling on the delay.
A good five seconds elapsed on the delay and I noticed my partner fire his arm into the air. I was standing beside linesman Pat Dapuzzo and said, "I think he has a second penalty; did you see anything just happen?"
The offending team touched the puck and both of us blew our whistle. This time, instead of racing to the penalty box, my competitive partner skated across the ice to me and asked, "What have you got?"
I knew he had absolutely no idea what the penalty infraction was because he hadn't seen it. All he saw was my arm in the air. I had had enough of this rush to judgment and wanted to end it.
I looked right at him and said, "No, what do you have? What penalty are you calling?" The deer in the headlights look and his response of "Ahh, ahh.." prompted me to say, "Only call what you see and don't race me to the box when something happens right in front of me!" That was the end of the foot race to the penalty bench that night or any other time we worked together.