The first round of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs is officially heating up, and not just on the ice rinks. Internet chat rooms on sports web-pages everywhere are ablaze with criticism of the NHL referees and the job they’ve done thus far officiating the first 2 to 3 games of each eight opening-round match-ups. Fans from all over the NHL map are weighing in on how the next generation of NHL officials are interpreting and calling the rules of the game, and an overwhelming majority is not very happy with how it’s been going so far in these playoffs.
Most of the gripes are originating from fans following the San Jose Sharks and Calgary Flames series out west, but there has been noise about missed calls and a "playoff approach" to officiating surfacing from people following every series. Currently, the seven-seed Flames are leading the two-seed Sharks two games to one in the best of seven series, but many fans are complaining loudly that the "stripes" are missing a lot of calls or blowing the whistles in an inconsistent fashion…especially Sharks fans. A lightning rod for the scrutiny of officiating in this series was a big hit that Flames’ defenseman Cory Sarich laid on the Sharks’ Patrick Marleau in Game 3 of the series.
Depending on who you ask, Sarich either caught Marleau, who had his head down, cleanly with the shoulder, or Sarich got his elbow up on Marleau and committed a vicious penalty that was not called. In any case, a scrum between the teams developed after the hit, which left Marleau with a cut over his eyes and a badly bloodied nose. What was the result of the scrum? San Jose was short-handed for an additional roughing call assessed in the aftermath. What happened on the ensuing Flames power play? Jarome Iginla deflected a Phaneuf wrist shot by Sharks goalie, Evgeni Nabakov, 28 seconds into the man advantage, sparking Calgary to a comeback win and a 2-1 lead in the series.
Again, buzz about the sorry performance by the zebras is not isolated to some game-changing penalties in this Western Conference series. NHL fans are voicing their displeasure at the appearance of refs "loosening" their enforcement of the rules in the playoffs, or being inconsistent in their interpretations from period to period. This adjustment in referees’ approach during the postseason has been a regular gripe in response to commissioner Gary Bettman’s post-lockout assurance that rule interpretations (designed to speed up the game and let the talented stars skate) would be consistent in both regular season and playoff games.
Sure, the ticky-tack interference penalties are still getting called, but many (some much more apparent than others that have been whistled) are being missed. The new interpretation of the slashing rule, consistently called during the regular season to assess two minutes to players for hard stick checks that cause an opponent’s stick to break or get knocked away, seems to have disappeared altogether (I’ve personally seen this play go uncalled at least two times while following various opening round contests). The hooking/obstruction call may or may not be whistled when a defender’s stick is quickly brought to a puck-carrier’s hope and removed without clear interference. Lastly, the league’s publicized crackdown on clear shots to an opponent’s head during heavy body checks, a reaction to the past decades sharp rise in NHL player concussions, seems to have dissipated as wellâ€”just ask Patrick Marleau of the San Jose Sharks.
Bitter fans of underachieving teams are quick to hatch their "Canadian Conspiracy Theories" that the referees and the league have a nationalist desire to see as many Canadian teams as possible go deep in the run for Lord Stanley’s Cup. It’s no secret that Canada is by far the biggest market in professional ice hockey (pretend ALL Americans were enthralled with the NFL and didn’t really give a spit about the other three sports, that scenario times 10 is how Canadians feel toward ice hockey), but it’s also no secret that the American fan-base is every bit as valuable to the NHL as Canadian pride. Besides, every NHL club north and south of the border dresses plenty of canucks, and the extremely loyal and knowledgeable Canadian fans are known to follow and cheer for hometown NHL talent as much as the hometown NHL club. These silly pro-Canadian rants provide a convenient excuse for fans to vent when their American team is behind to a Canadian club in a series, but I consider it a "sour grapes" response to larger problem with the game. Also, to my surprise, I’ve read similar responses from fans on both side of the equation (supporting the teams suffering the results of marginal calls and even those rooting for teams that have benefited from such calls) stating that the refs have been wildly inconsistent and performing poorly thus far in the playoffsâ€”be it in their favorite team’s favor or not!
The NHL has seen many young, new refs lace up since the lockout. All refs, old and new, have adapted to the huge adjustment in interpreting many of the games’ rules, such as "Obstruction/Hooking" and "Interference". While the refs have been very diligent in adapting their performance during the regular season, they may be reverting back to their personal opinions about which plays deserve a whistle and which plays do not now that so much is at stake in the playoffs. This is the problem with having a new interpretation to an old ruleâ€”not everyone will have the same interpretation, and the interpretations are vulnerable to the timing and circumstances that surround a play. Would a young ref, eager to let the players decide these blood-and-guts battles, keep his whistle in his pocket when a defending player barely gets the stick blade on an opponent’s hip? Should a referee give a power play out for a hit that straddles the line between good, hard, clean hockey and a dirty, opportunistic cheap shot?
These are tough questions regarding the tremendously difficult job of being an NHL referee. Fans should remember that these refs are human beingsâ€”human beings skating at the pace of professional ice hockey while both simultaneously attempting to avoid interfering with the play and monitoring the rules of the game as it unfolds (sounds tough, huh?). As in all sports, calls are going to be missed from time to time. The burning question for fans of the NHL is this: Are penalty calls getting missed more frequently in this postseason because of the stakes and speed of the game, or have the refs independently adjusted their interpretations of what is and what is not a penalty?
Before Gary Bettman and Colin Campbell tinker any more with the rules of professional ice hockey, they’d be well-advised to make sure that the current rules are crystal clear and consistently spelled outâ€”to the players, coaches, and, most importantly, the scapegoats in stripes responsible for keeping the ice level for all teams.