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NHL referees do well to avoid ticky-tacky penalties

For the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone would be steadfast in the notion that the NHL fixes playoff games through its officials and then still watch. To me, it’s the easiest thing in the world to blame the referees and, quite frankly, it’s tiring and predictable. Not to mention the fact a conspiracy of this scale would have to involve so many parties and so many honorable figures that there is no way it would remain a secret.

Whenever I hear someone say the referees call this or that in favor of one team because “the NHL has already decided who will win the Stanley Cup” two words come to mind: “boo” and “hoo.”

One area that has raised the ire of fans and analysts alike this post-season is the faceoff circle. Sometimes it takes forever for the linesman to drop the puck and it often happens after one or both players get tossed from the dot.

On Monday, I spoke to an NHL linesman about the topic. Although he wasn’t prepared to speak on the record about this procedure until after the playoffs, he wanted to drive the point home that the men in stripes are dedicated to getting each and every puck drop right. With the increased intensity the players have in the playoffs, they tend to jump the gun on the draw more often and that can result in an ejection from the circle.

Would we rather have quicker draws that centers and wingers can more easily cheat on or have the linesmen converse with the players and make sure both sides are lined up as they should be? I know where I stand. And for you conspiracy theorists out there, I’m sure you’d agree with me that delayed puck drops are all right – after all, if one was rushed to Vancouver’s advantage it would clearly indicate the NHL’s undivided support for the Canucks…er, right?

But with all these players being tossed from the faceoff dot, you’d think we’d see an encroachment penalty at some point.

As the rule goes, a team can have one player removed from the faceoff circle for jumping the gun or having a winger encroach, but the second violation results in a penalty. You’d think with the frequency at which players are tossed out, encroachment would eventually be called, but it never is. Sometimes after a player is removed we may even notice the same team encroach again, but the two sides will realign instead of having a penalty called. Is that wrong? Depends which side of the much larger debate you’re on.

To me, a well-refereed game is defined by the flow and the quality and consistency of penalties being called. Is a little stick-tap slash on the side of the leg that doesn’t impede a player a penalty? Not in my book. When a forward chips the puck past a defenseman, tries to burn around him with speed and is checked hard instead, is that a penalty? Not in my book. Call the penalties that take a guy out of the play, impede a scoring chance, negate a skill play, escalate tempers to a point beyond comfort or are just plain dangerous. Don’t call the chintzy ones that have no effect on the game at all – I’d rather see a game breathe with emotion than be bogged down in perimeter-passing power plays.

Of course, not everyone feels that way, namely the guys behind the bench. I had a brief discussion with one NHL coach recently about line matching, but it quickly turned to a chat on where the penalty bar should be set. Understandably, he’s of the opinion that a penalty is a penalty is a penalty and if a team commits an infraction, regardless of how minor it appears, it should be called. He fairly pointed out that when you start to alter definitions of these penalties it opens up the door to confusion because everyone will define a play a different way.

From his standpoint, it would be frustrating to not get a call in your favor that looks like it should be. But personally, I’d rather watch up-and-down, passionate hockey than uneventful power play after uneventful power play. Not that more leniency would automatically allow pre-lockout clutching and grabbing to seep back in – that’s an extreme.

Do we want to go down the road where encroachment or non-intrusive stick penalties are issued at key points of a playoff game? Is that how we want the Stanley Cup to be decided? To me, that’s anti-climactic.

We’ve come a long way from the dead puck era and power plays are more a part of the NHL game than ever before. But taking the rulebook too literally can detract from an otherwise exciting game.

Let the referees do their job. Let the game breathe. There is such a thing as too many penalties.

Besides, the referees will never appease the masses anyway, because they are the easiest targets on the ice.

Rory Boylen is's web editor. His blog appears regularly only on

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