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FanFirst Friday: Ref You Suck Edition

Every year around this time, NHL officiating takes center stage, for better or, in many fans’ view, for worse.

NHL: Seattle Kraken at Columbus Blue Jackets
Much like holding the puck, NHL referees often dictate the outcome of games and it feels like it’s reaching a boiling point.
Jason Mowry-USA TODAY Sports

I debated for a while where to go with this week’s column. The New Jersey Devils did the unthinkable with a rookie goalie and marched into Madison Square Garden, faced a hostile crowd (one that booed Jack Hughes every time he touched the puck), bad ice and a once-lethal power play and walked away with two wins.

And yet, some of the discourse around these playoffs have become so loud that I felt like I wanted to address it here. When you have a platform, you use it, right? 32 Thoughts, the unbelievably great podcast with Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman, talked a bunch about the spotlight on the NHL officiating this week. The Point on SiriusXM, probably the best live hockey show there is, also brought it up and then Greg Wyshynski wrote this feature on how to fix it.

Granted a lot of the jumping off point was the high stick touch of the puck in the Los Angeles Kings-Edmonton Oilers series, which happened to lead to a winning goal for the Kings in overtime. And Rod Brind’Amour being Rod Brind’Amour, he was whining about officiating possibly louder than any coach outside of maybe Dean Evason. It’s definitely become a hot button issue in the NHL.

I’ve watched hockey, played a bit of hockey, been involved in hockey for about 42 years or so. There are two things about hockey that are always going to make officiating the sport really challenging. First, almost all calls are subjective. There are very few automatic penalties like delay of game. Hooking, holding, interference, tripping are all really open to interpretation. Some refs call it by the letter of the law. Meaning any kind of infraction and the player is headed to the box. But some refs seem to let a little bit of holding, interference and even the occasional trip go.

Timo Meier got tripped in game four, clearly, right in front of the referees by Mika Zibanejad about 20 seconds before Curtis Lazar got nabbed for holding a player. If the trip is called by the letter of the law like the Lazar penalty (he barely cusped his hand around the player), then the Lazar penalty never happens. Now maybe the refs think Meier fell of his own accord and lost an edge (World’s Most Famous Crappy Ice Surface), which is possible, but you could see Zibanejad’s stick push his blades out.

The other thing that makes hockey officiating really difficult is that the players have never been faster. Yesterday I was fondly remembering the Patrik Sundstrom legendary game for the New Jersey Devils when he had 8 points in a game.

I mean it immediately stood out to me how slow the players and game looked. Not to mention some of the hooking and holding that was really let go. You can see at the end of the video a player desperately attempting to hook Sundstrom desperately as he broke away. But Connor McDavid, Jack Hughes, Dylan Larkin and other speed merchants of the game have made it faster and much more difficult to follow. Not to mention rule changes like no more two-line passes. Remember that was a thing? You have long stretch passes that instantly turn offense to defense in the blink of an eye. I mean look at this from Siegenthaler to Hughes. The puck seems like it’s about to go in the Devils net and instead, maybe less than a second later (so much so that the camera can’t even keep up), Jack Hughes is on a breakaway, about to posterize Igor Shesterkin.

Good luck if you’re the ref trying to keep pace with that.

So if you have two fundamental issues that are making it extremely difficult to officiate, how do you address them? Subjectivity is going to be a really hard one to fix. Unless the NHL has a mandate to literally call everything and I’m not sure fans want it to go there. I mean do we all want to sit through 10 power plays a piece every night? I’m pretty sure I don’t.

One idea that makes sense here is something Jake Hahn (Jake is the younger part of the broadcasting team with Jim “Boomer” Gordon) brought up on The Point. It’s a fantastic point and I really think it’s something that the NHL needs to REALLY take the time to look at this offseason (though I wish it could be added sooner). As it currently stands, embellishment is basically only really called as part of a dual package when a trip or holding or interference is called. The assumption is that the original infraction occurred but that the player who was being fouled really made it look worse than it was. The result of this well-intentioned rule change for embellishment is that players feel free to flow, act, dive and generally disrespect the sport without fear of repercussions. I’m immediately thinking of the faux interference that Ryan Graves allegedly gave to Patrick Kane which led, of course to a power play. Now granted, there might’ve been slight interference on Kane even though Graves was entitled to that space as much as he was and Kane whipped his head back as though he’d been sniped from the upper deck. He continued through with the performance by checking his jaw but then was instantly out there on the power play. Now, no embellishment was called here but I do think that Kane worked REALLY hard to be sure that the call was sold.

Embellishment should be a stand-alone call. It should not be automatically tied to another infraction. Sometimes it will be, sure, but all too often it’s caused by a player submitting an entry to this year’s Oscars. For your consideration, I present to you, Patrick Kane in “The Glass Jaw.”

The refs should also have the cojones to call it SOLO if they feel like someone like Brad Marchand flops (he’s always the first one that pops into my head wrt this stuff). The last thing I want hockey to turn into is European football where guys routinely act like they’ve suffered a career-ending injury on a routine tackle in an attempt to dupe the official into a favorable call. Not many act like they’re injured and roll around for five minutes until they get hit with the magic freeze spray and jump up, but still, the pirouette and falling dramatically while slamming the stick loudly on the ice after an alleged trip is an all-too-real phenomenon in hockey. I swear the stick smack is just a loud noise to make sure that a clueless ref saw this egregious act by the opposition. Regardless, having the threat of embellishment called on you should be enough of a deterrent to assure fans that we won’t see nearly as much time spent trying to draw calls.

“Yeah but hey, author guy, you just said that the game moves really fast and it’s very subjective. How can you be so sure what is a flop and what isn’t?” This is where the other part of my thought process comes in. Steve Kouleas isn’t my favorite host on SiriusXM NHL Radio. He seems to have a distinct dislike for the New Jersey Devils and the fanbase. At the same time, he’s been calling for something in every NHL rink called the “eye in the sky”. Meaning that there’s a third official at every game and their job is to review penalties (and missed ones) and make sure that the on-ice guys aren’t put in bad positions. I’m not a Marcus Foligno fan, but some of the calls against his this week were terrible and I don’t blame him for calling BS on them. An eye in the sky could’ve quickly reviewed those calls and probably negated them. Or possibly catch a missed high stick or anything else in the game. Obviously the issue with eye-in-the-sky is that if they’re reviewing everything, do the on-ice officials even matter than much any more? How much does it slow the game down? I think you’d have to have specific parameters set for what they can review and what they can’t. I’m thinking the embellishment call being solo here would be something that I’d love for an eye-in-the-sky to help with. I’m not angry with on-ice guys for seeing the drama and in a split second having to determine if it was a legit call or not. The players put the refs in unenviable positions when they flop or submit that clip for this year’s Emmys. But that’s a specific instance when another set of eyes watching on replay in slow-mo can determine whether or not the infraction was really there or someone was doing their best to try and draw a call.

Look, NHL fans are gonna hate officiating until the end of time. It’s probably never going to change. I might never get over that infamous 2-1 November 23rd game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Tin foil hats, conspiracy theorist, whatever you wanna call me...I’m convinced that the NHL wanted the Devils 13-game winning streak to end that night. I went 6-1 at live games this season and the one loss was that abomination of a game. The refs had called Toronto that night on the disallowed goals and literally nothing changed so this won’t solve the perception I, or many others, have. I still find it funny when Rangers fans say anything bad about the refereeing because the NHL offices literally overlook Madison Square Garden and New York is the biggest market for an NHL team and the Rangers being successful would line the league’s pockets unlike anything else. But that’s all subjective, right? Much like refereeing in the NHL. One man’s trip is another man’s embellishment. But that doesn’t mean that the league shouldn’t strive to be as perfect as it can be.

I have plenty of issues with baseball, the biggest of which is my favorite team is now on the verge of fully giving the bird to where they are now and running off to seek greener pastures, but the commissioner Rob Manfred has been slowing addressing all the perceived issues with the sport. Speed of play, accuracy of calls and other elements to improve offense (removing the shift). He’s even talking about phasing out home plate umpires calling balls and strikes which was probably my greatest complaint about baseball. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman should be doing the same. He has, but when public confidence wanes in officiating, people start to walk away from a sport and find better things to do with their time. That’s how crucial I think this is for the NHL. You want new markets like Seattle and Las Vegas to continue to support their teams, no matter what? Make it clear to the fans in the audience WHY Cale Makar’s interference penalty on Jared McCann was reduced to a minor rather than leaving a stadium and a television audience wondering WTF just happened.

Not to bring it back to another sport, but basketball always announces to the crowd after reviewing a play WHY they called things the way they did. Hockey refs just announce, “Hey, yeah, that five-minute major has been reduced to a two-minute minor but I’ve got dinner plans after this game so I won’t spend ten seconds explaining to all you people watching why, so draw your own f*cking conclusions.”

It makes an already toxic relationship between fan and referee that much more toxic. Though to be honest, if your spouse cheats, does it really make it that much better if they explain why? Maybe not. Still, I think the amount of money people pay to walk in the gates for playoff hockey, they’re kind of owed some sort of explanation as their leading goal scorer stumbles around on the ice trying to find his way to the locker room. You wonder why people are angry? That’s as emotionally charged as it gets.

Any way, the “ref, you suck” chant is universal now. I remember back in the day, refs would wear names instead of numbers on their backs so it was so much easier for fans to be MUCH more personal. Remember the homage to legendary doughnut-lover Don Koharski in Wayne’s World?

The relationship between fandom and officiating in hockey will always be strained because fans often look for reasons why their team lost. Sometimes it’s picking on players on their own team, but probably more often than not, the referee sits squarely in the crosshairs. The NHL needs to do all they can to try and make that job a little easier without disrupting what is the fastest, often craziest and most random sport. I don’t envy them trying to fix it, but please humbly take a few of my suggestions above just to improve it a little bit.