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The NHL Made a Mistake, But At Least They Owned Up to It

Coming out and admitting you were wrong is admirable. That's what the NHL did after messing up a disallowed goal on Friday. Learning from your mistakes is the mature response to the challenges leagues face in getting all their calls right.
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It’s good that the NHL came out and admitted its internal hockey operations people messed up on a disallowed goal from the Buffalo Sabres Friday night. NHL senior executive vice-president correctly noted that the call on the ice on the play – the call of a “good goal” after Sabres winger Victor Olofsson’s shot bounced of Rangers D-man Patrik Nemeth and into the net with 57 seconds remaining in regulation time.

The problem is, somebody forgot to tell the league they need conclusive evidence to justify a different call on the play. There was no conclusive evidence, though. The league failed to follow its usual process, the Sabres lost a 2-1 game that should’ve went to overtime, and the video showed there was no offside that disallowed Olofsson’s goal. It was a debacle.

The NHL deserves to be criticized for this. They screwed up, and they know they screwed up. But it’s important to note that the act of officiating – whether it’s on the ice or whether they’re in a Toronto TV room where they’re judging close on-ice plays – is one that inevitably will have some subjectivity in it. 

Now, you can try to minimize the degree of subjectivity, but at the end of the day, there’s still going to be a human being interpreting a piece of writing and the way it spells out discipline for athletes, and sometimes a human being will incorrectly interpret that piece of writing. That happens all the time with on-ice officials, so it shouldn’t shock anyone that off-ice officials make mistakes as well.

Acknowledging a goal was disallowed when it should have been allowed is the first step to transparency for the NHL. But it doesn’t take them completely off the hook, either. If this were an instance where the Sabres went through the rest of the regular season battling for a Stanley Cup playoff spot, and fell one standings point shy of qualifying for one, there would be bedlam in Buffalo, and it would be righteous fury.

What’s that you say? We need robot referees? Even if that were possible, there’s still a human element to them. They’re still created by humans, programmed by humans, and fixed/updated by humans. It’s safe to say there would be glitches and misfires galore as the robots were trying to be perfect.

There really is no “perfect” when it comes to hockey referees and off-ice officials, though. The ultimate goal is to be perfect, and that’s as it ought to be. But the reality is that, no matter how hard you try, there’s some things that will slip through your fingers and make you regret your call.

The truth is, the officials on the ice and in the league’s video review office get the calls right 98 percent of the time. Hockey is so fast now, and so chaotic, it’s unfair to demand on-and-off-ice officials be perfect in their assessment of calls. Sure, they can strive for perfection, and you want to see that determination from them. But we shouldn’t jump all over them when they make one mistake.

As I’ve written before, if there were better referees and video review people somewhere on this planet, the NHL would’ve hired them by now. The league does hold its officials to the highest standard, and the league hates these types of screw-ups, so I wouldn’t expect another video review to be botched anytime soon.

Coming out and admitting you were wrong is admirable. Learning from your mistakes – and acknowledging you’ll always have some degree of subjectivity in the officiating of the game – is the mature response to the challenges leagues face in getting all their calls right.

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