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Opinion: What is Up With NHL Officiating?

After all these years of defending their officiating system, NHL gatekeepers have to admit it could and should be better.
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The Maple Leafs/Coyotes game Thursday night ended in controversy when Arizona defenseman Jacob Chychrun got away with a holding penalty on Leafs superstar Auston Matthews – directly in front of referee Kendrick Nicholson, who was clearly looking right at the two players – before scoring the game-winning goal in overtime.

Under the NHL’s referee-protective system, Nicholson doesn’t have to answer to the public for his blown call. That’s another column for another day. But the usual hockey status quo apologists will say he didn’t penalize Chychrun because he didn’t want to be the deciding factor in the game, which, of course, is a mound of steaming b.s., because his non-call was, without question, the deciding factor in the game. And I’d say this if the shoe was on the other foot, and it was Matthews holding Chychrun. This has nothing to do with the players or teams involved, and everything to do with an indefensible officiating culture that has festered in the NHL for far too long.

In the NFL, officials do not put their whistles away and change the standard for pass interference so that star wide receivers get mauled in the name of “competition”. In the NBA, nothing changes in terms of foul calls simply because that’s the only way non-star defenders can contain stars on offense. In every other sport, the best athletes are allowed to be the best athletes without being mugged night-in and night-out. 

But not in the NHL, which is still the same “garbage league” Hockey Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux said it was back in 1994. In the NHL, mediocrity is encouraged by lax rule enforcement. And it is terrible to realize this is all by design – that, if league commissioner Gary Bettman and his employers/team owners wanted it to change, it could change tomorrow.

But it’s not going to change, because the league is content with the current arrangement. No official is perfect, but we all have come to expect the NHL’s officiating standards will change come playoff time, and stars like Matthews once again will have their talents blunted by blue-collar slugs who have one-tenth of the offensive creativity an elite player like Matthews has.

The NHL could take steps to ensure fewer calls are blown by adding a third referee in an “eye-in-the-sky” position, high up in the arena, with the ability to stop the action and call illegal plays they see from up top. If you think that’s too radical a solution, I’d say that you heard that same complaint when the NHL added a second on-ice referee in the 2000-01 season, and players have adapted to it to the point nobody questions it anymore. The same would be true of a third referee; there would be an adjustment period, but plays like the Chychrun/Matthews run-in would be caught more often than not, and that’s the goal here.

For decades, hockey has essentially told its best players that they have no choice but to put up with being assaulted as they try to wow the paying customer with their elite skills. New York Islanders icon Mike Bossy was cross-checked into early retirement because hockey’s gatekeepers deemed it fair play. Lemieux had to deal with water-skiing opponents hooking and holding him at virtually every turn. It was not, and is not fair play. NFL icon Tom Brady never had to worry about being clipped in the knee, or punched in the solar plexus, in carrying out his duties. 

But NHL stars are forced to tolerate over-aggressive behavior from defenders. It is an injustice, regardless of what they’ll tell you. And the NHL’s officials must be made to account for errors in judgment, so that a play like the Matthews/Chychrun run-in is an extremely rare occurrence.

In the coming days and weeks, you’ll undoubtedly see Bettman and director of NHL officiating Stephen Walkom do their best tap-dances to justify the current standards of officiating. Do not believe them. I’ve been a regular defender of referees – most, if not all of them are the best in the world at what they do – but I’ve had more than enough of these type of errors. They happen because that’s the way Bettman & Co. believe the game should look like, and they are wrong in that opinion. Whether it’s Matthews, Oilers star Connor McDavid, or any Grade-A talent, NHL stars deserve more support from the league.

After all these years of defending their officiating system, NHL gatekeepers have to admit it could and should be better. This isn’t about Kendrick Nicholson or any one on-ice official. This is about which athletes are allowed to succeed, and which ones have to bear the brunt of hockey’s approach to permitting its stars to shine. When another officiating controversy happens again in the coming post-season – and you know that it will – we’ll hear the same excuses trotted out. 

And they’ll be just as flimsy as they are today.

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