We should all remember what happened in Nashville Tuesday night the next time NHL commissioner Gary Bettman insists that the on-ice officials employed by his league are the best in the world. Because if this is what the best in the world has to offer, the league should be very concerned.
The NHL, of course, did what it had to do when it came to the Tim Peel situation. It simply could not allow an official who had been caught imposing himself on a game to ever step on the ice again. Full stop. And in that sense, it dealt with Peel harshly. The 53-year-old Peel was scheduled to retire after this season, with his final game set for April 24 according to Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet. To not have the opportunity to leave the game on his own terms is certainly a heavy price for Peel to pay.
But on the other hand, the NHL, as is often the case, gets off extremely lucky here. Here it was, with a respected veteran official being caught on a hot mic saying, “It wasn’t much, but I wanted to get a f---in’ penalty against Nashville early in the…” before his mic was cut off. The NHL immediately said it was investigated, then came to a determination and sentence in a matter of hours. In the league’s statement on the matter, NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell said, “Nothing is more important that insuring the integrity of our game.”
The statement was interesting on a couple of fronts. First, why wasn’t the league commissioner making it? Second, it never actually said Peel had been fired, simply that he would, “no longer be working NHL games now or in the future.” And in that respect, it’s all pretty convenient, isn’t it? The way it worked out, the league addresses the isolated incident without having to do anything about, or even be accountable for, what is perceived to be a much wider problem. And in that respect, it got extremely lucky.
By dealing with it this way, we could be led to believe that Tim Peel, who has been officiating since 1999 and has worked more than 1,300 regular-season games, 90 playoff contests and the Sochi Olympics, had a momentary and unfortunate lapse in judgment one month before his career as an NHL referee was about to end. Meanwhile, we’ve been conditioned to expect phantom calls and non-calls from officials for years. We’ve come to accept that something that is a penalty in October is not in May. And we’ve watched for years as referees have stood 10 feet from a defenseman who is repeatedly crosschecking an opponent in the back with impunity, only to see that same official call a penalty later in the game for tapping an opponent with his stick.
“I hope (even-up calls are) not something that goes on with more officials,” Nashville Predators center Matt Duchene told a local radio station Wednesday morning, “but, I mean, there’s definitely nights where you’re skeptical of it, for sure.”
By relieving Peel of his duties without firing him, the league is spared the headache of having to overhaul its approach to officiating, which is exactly what is needed here. The NHL vowed immediately after the play that it was, “investigating this incident.” Well, that investigation should not end with a quick dismissal of a veteran referee. If the league truly wants to preserve its integrity, it needs to take a critical look at how it manages the games. A good number of fans and observers believe that Peel simply said out loud what every referee thinks privately. And until the league is held to account for its officials and the way it trains them, it’s going to remain that way.
What players, coaches and fans need to know is how exactly are these people being trained in game management? And what is actually being done, beyond words and platitudes, to ensure that the integrity of the game is being maintained? Prior to the 2019 Stanley Cup final, when asked about the quality of officiating in the playoffs, Bettman stood by his men in stripes. “The officials in this league are the best in the world, I believe,” Bettman said. “Not just in hockey, but in any sport.” Well, you can’t have it both ways. Either the officials can’t be near as good as Bettman says they are or they’re being directed to manage and call the game a certain way.
Just because the league escaped any meaningful consequences doesn’t mean it should be off the hook when it comes to officiating. “Imagine the scenario where (the Detroit Red Wings) score on the power play, we lose the game and we miss the playoffs by a point,” Duchene said in the radio interview. “I mean, imagine that scenario. That’s not out of the realm of possibility, right? I don’t think there’s a place in hockey for that. You’ve got to call the game.”
Even-up calls have been a part of hockey for as long as it has been played. We’ve all come to accept it, but we shouldn’t. There is no other sport where the standards for calling the rulebook vary more than they do in hockey. It doesn’t have to be that way. And we can only hope that the situation with Tim Peel starts this league on the road to realizing that.