Just hours before the puck dropped for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman proclaimed, “To be clear, we have the best officials in the world.” Not long after, everything pretty much went sideways.
This year’s Stanley Cup final will and should ultimately be remembered for how the St. Louis Blues scratched and clawed their way from last place to winning the first NHL championship in franchise history, led by a rookie goalie who was all but discarded by the organization. It should and will be remembered for being one of the most anxiety-inducing, intense and compelling four rounds of hockey in recent memory.
But it will also be remembered for moments of misfortune and of outright incompetence from the men Bettman called the best officials in the world. There were nights when they made a lot of us wonder exactly what it was they were the best in the world at doing. Missed, blown and incorrect calls not only pockmarked the playoffs, but they ended up deciding crucial games and, ultimately, series. Some of what was missed or messed up could not be reviewed by video, such as the hand pass that led to an overtime goal for the San Jose Sharks in Game 3 of the Western Conference final that Bettman acknowledged, “What I thought was it would be good if I kept my head from exploding. I was unhappy.”
The day before the Cup was handed out, the NHL/NHL Players’ Association competition committee met and came up with a comprehensive strategy for video review that recommended, “changes to the coach’s challenge and expanded video review, including as it relates to a referee’s ability to review some of his own calls on the ice.” The proposed changes will move on to the GMs, then to the league’s board of governors before possible implementation next season.
That’s really nice. And anything that helps the league get things right as often as possible is nothing but a positive. The league absolutely has to get this right because its integrity depends on it.
During the lockout in 2004-05, the league had a missed season to identify what was wrong with the game and repair it. The result was a crackdown on obstruction, the likes of which we had never seen before, and a superior product. The changes to video review are every bit as important as the crackdown on obstruction, and the league has four months to make it work.
But, as is often the case, the problem here is that the NHL is not willing to go far enough and address the core problem. Rectifying the embarrassment that led to the hand-pass goal is actually a pretty easy and straightforward fix. If you apply logical thinking to the situation, a lot of this is eminently repairable. And the league will do that. It might add a bit of time to games, which is a huge consideration for a league that covets game flow and having matches completed in under two-and-a-half hours, but most fans will take a couple of extra minutes of their time in exchange for getting the call right as often as possible.
But all the changes to video in the world are not going to get to the root of the problem until the culture of the NHL changes when it comes to its approach to managing the game. Bettman is right. The NHL has the best on-ice officials in the world. But until they are explicitly instructed to call the game the same way every time, from one between two last-place teams in the middle of February to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, it will continue to open itself up to very justified criticism. And it was something the competition committee didn’t even address in its June meeting.
Missing calls is one thing. That’s called a mistake, and it’s understandable those happen from time to time. But when a referee stands 10 feet away and watches two players mug each other in front of the net or a defenseman repeatedly cross-check an opponent in the back or a player trip/slew-foot an opponent in the offensive zone that leads directly to a game-winning goal, that’s something entirely different. That’s called willful blindness. And it’s something the NHL has tacitly encouraged for years.
It’s because ex-players largely run the league, more so than any other pro sport. Look at members of the competition committee – Connor McDavid, Connor Hellebuyck, John Tavares, Ron Hainsey and James van Riemsdyk on the NHLPA side and Steve Yzerman, Ken Holland, Doug Wilson, David Poile and Craig Leipold on the NHL side. Ten guys, eight of whom played in the NHL. When it comes to addressing problems that plague officiating, they’re going to come down on the “let the players play” side every time.
The only problem with that is, by not making the calls they should, the officials are not letting the players play. By neglecting to make a call in the hopes they won’t impact the outcome of the game, they end up impacting the outcome of the game. And it’s because the league wants them to call games that way. Until the NHL truly changes its approach to guiding its officials and makes them accountable for their mistakes – perhaps the way the NBA does with its two-minute reports that point out each mistake and blown call in the final two minutes of each game – no amount of video review is going to cure what ails this league.