Colin Fraser argues with referees Tim Peel and Francois St. Laurent. (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)
Hockey referees make mistakes. Everybody knows it and everybody expects it. But some mistakes are worse than others. Some errors in judgment leave a more lasting bitter residue under the tongue. And at a time when the NHL has never had more parity and the difference between making and missing out on a playoff berth could be a single point in the standings, the men in stripes are under more scrutiny than ever.
The hockey world has to acknowledge the human element behind the enforcement of rules and understand there won’t ever be a system that makes everyone happy. But that doesn’t mean it has to embrace the status quo, either. That’s why, for some time now, I’ve believed the NHL needs an official in the stands capable of making crucial decisions as well as more situations that can be challenged in a video review. I first suggested this in the pages of THN magazine last spring and after seeing some early controversies this season, I’m more convinced of it than ever.
Take, for example, the blown call in last week’s game between St. Louis and Detroit: Blues captain David Backes was assessed a match penalty and got ejected midway through the third period for a hit to the head of Wings blueliner Kent Huskins. In the five-minute major penalty that accompanied Backes’ ejection, Detroit broke a 3-3 tie and went on to win the game 5-3. Similarly, during Tuesday’s game between the Blackhawks and Sharks, San Jose forward Andrew Desjardins was called for a blow to the head on Chicago’s Jamal Mayers and ejected in the second period.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m 100 percent committed to reducing the number of head injuries in hockey via strict standards and penalties for those who cross the line. But in the case of both Backes and Desjardins, they never crossed it in the first place. Subsequent video review of both incidents showed both hits were clean. And indeed, the NHL rescinded the match penalties for both players shortly after each of those games had ended. Unfortunately, the results of the games remained the same; if, at the end of the year, either the Blues or Sharks are one point out of the post-season (or one point short of home ice advantage in the playoffs), it will be easy for team officials and their fans to look back at these mistakes and curse the NHL under (and over) their breath.
But it doesn’t have to be that way in the future. If there were an official sitting in the press box who had the ability to contact an on-ice referee and halt the game momentarily in order to look at the replay, any terrible decision can be reversed on the spot. Sure, the game would slow down a bit, but it’s not as if each and every play would require video scrutiny. Instead, if you limited the off-ice referee to having input on the plays that clearly can cripple a team – i.e. goals, major penalties and even double-minors – you not only are doing a service to both teams, you’re doing one to the on-ice officials.
Let’s be honest, the game moves too quickly at ice level for the two refs and linesmen to be on top of each and every incident. Having an eye in the sky who can step in when necessary and provide a more accurate accounting of what really happened can’t ever be a bad thing. It would save the league and zebras embarrassment and make fans and players more confident that accuracy and not immediacy is the real goal of officials.
Would there still be calls made by an off-ice referee that people disagree with vehemently? Of course there would. But the league already has opened the door to this kind of evolution as soon as it relied on video replay to decide contentious goals. This doesn’t have to be a coach’s challenge that can be thrown out willy-nilly at any point in a game. Video replay for major penalties can and should be used entirely at the discretion of the off-ice official. Hell, even if you didn’t want an additional referee, you could put a video monitor in the penalty box for the on-ice officials to look at when deciding on key penalties or events. The NBA does as much for its referees now and its games are better for it.
A referee in the stands and/or additional video review won’t be a burden on the game, the NHL or anyone who is working under its banner. It’s about helping the referees help themselves. And the sooner we can admit that, the more we’ll avoid seeing future travesties that have become much too common.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.
Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.