BOSTON – “To be clear,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said prior to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, “we have the best officials in the world.” Hours later, those same officials, who are supposedly the best in the world, put on a display of managing a hockey game that should leave everyone in the league embarrassed. Again.
The men who wear the striped shirts have been a major focal point of this post-season. And as Game 1 of the final devolved into an amateur rodeo, it was more of the same in the first game of the league’s biggest showcase. It was disgraceful. And while Bettman and the league talk about improving video replay, not once did he mention that perhaps there needs to be something done about the way the games are refereed. The more you watch this game, the more it becomes apparent that the league actually loves the chaos, the mayhem and the always coveted “bad blood” that this league thinks it needs to sell its product.
I actually don’t question Bettman when he says NHL officials are the best in the world. They are. They’re highly trained. They’re in great shape. They have a difficult job where they have to make crucial decisions in real time. The kind of garbage we witnessed in Game 1 is not because the referees are bad, but because they are directed by the league to officiate the games this way. And the bigger the game, the more deeply the whistle gets nestled into the pocket.
How else do you explain how Steve Kozari can stand no more than 10 feet away from Torey Krug and David Perron as they essentially mug each other, then Krug, in a pique of rage, travels about 150 feet to crush the first player he sees? In this case, it was Blues rookie Robert Thomas. And Krug doesn’t get a charging penalty for his hit on Thomas? Well, you can say all you want about how Krug’s feet weren’t moving or that Thomas had the puck, but then read Rule 42.1, which governs charging: “A minor penalty shall be imposed on a player who skates, jumps into or charges an opponent in any manner. Charging shall mean the actions of a player who, as a result of distance travelled, shall violently check an opponent in any manner. A ‘charge’ may be the result of a check into the boards, into the goal frame or in open ice.”
Krug’s hit was literally the textbook definition of a charge. The good thing is that what Krug did will likely result in a minor penalty next season, not for obliterating Thomas, but for not going directly to the bench after losing his helmet. That’s the kind of stuff this league finds important. That and making sure that divers are publicly humiliated. The charging rule is ambiguous and vague, but by the rulebook, that was a charge. Either call the rule as it appears in your own rulebook or change it.
More former players hold the real levers of power in the NHL than they do in any other sport. By a mile. That’s why we see gong shows like the one in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final. Really good player? Well, prepare to be targeted and take it without complaint. From director of player safety George Parros and his 158 career fights on down to the GMs, this is the kind of stuff that gets their juices flowing. Those are the ones who are directing the officials to call the game. This is coming straight from the top.
The league has a lot of work to do this summer. It somehow has to figure out the mess that has become video replay. Coincidentally, it will also have to come to terms with the “best officials in the world” on a new contract. Chances are, a good portion of NHL fans would not have a problem seeing the members of that particular union have to sit out and watch games from the sidelines because many feel that others, even those less experienced, could not possibly do worse.
And that’s not fair to the officials. They are only calling the games as they are directed by a league office that still thinks it needs this stuff to attract a fan base. As mild-mannered Bruins winger Marcus Johansson put it, “This is going to be a war to the end. It’s us or them.”
Oh yeah, by the way, the Bruins won 4-2 and were dominant in Game 1. If this trend continues, it could be a very short series. The bright side there is there will be fewer chances for the NHL to continue embarrassing itself.
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