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Thursday, February 28, 2013
Updated: March 1, 1:18 PM ET
Quit whining about the officials

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

One thing this shortened NHL season has given us in abundance is the fine art of the whine.

Nary a night passes that we don't hear rumblings and grumblings from a coach, general manager, player or the media covering a game about one or more (perceived) odious calls from the on-ice officials.

Wednesday night it was Detroit carping about non-calls in Los Angeles after a 2-1 loss to the Kings, while there were complaints in Toronto about a major checking from behind call assessed to Leafs forward Mike Brown.

Indeed, it's a rare night we don't hear some boo-hooing from some corner of the NHL world about calls made or not made.

Truly, is there anything more tiresome than someone complaining about the work done on the ice, especially given that invariably that complaint emanates from a team that ended up losing a game or a point in the standings?

We get that the importance of each game is magnified by the 48-game schedule. But it would be a whole lot more gratifying if the complainers took a good hard look in the mirror before taking the easy way out and blaming officials, even if they turned out to be on the wrong end of a few calls.

Niklas Kronwall
Just like the players, NHL officials are working three games in four nights, but they have to fly commercial.

We are almost halfway through the season, and coaches and GMs are still talking about players who didn't play during the lockout not quite being in sync, or players who did play but arrived out of shape nonetheless, or learned bad habits playing in Europe or the American Hockey League.

You still see references to a shortened training camp and its impact on teams' abilities to adjust to new systems.

These aren't necessarily excuses but factors in the current state of the game.

It's easy to forget that on-ice officials -- to their eternal credit -- did not steal one job during the lockout, and officiated no games in Europe or the minor leagues. They also did not have even a shortened training camp but were scattered to the winds when the lockout ended and the season was rushed into existence in mid-January.

We hear non-stop about the pressures of the current schedule with teams playing three games in four nights on a regular basis. What of the officials who are working three games in four nights and crisscrossing the continent, not on charters, but on commercial flights?

Do all of these factors play into what many believe is a preponderance of mistakes on the ice thus far?

Perhaps.

Still, it's expected officiating is going to be a hot topic when the NHL's GMs meet in Toronto in three weeks' time, especially in light of several match penalties being rescinded by the league (David Backes of the Blues and Andrew Desjardins of the San Jose Sharks had their penalties overturned) and a recent kneeing major handed out to Philadelphia's Harry Zolnierczyk was also erased.

Whatever the perception is, or the reality, for that matter, the fact is an independent analysis of calls made on the ice still puts the NHL at about 90 percent efficiency -- a number that is in keeping with the other major pro sports in North America, a source familiar with the process told ESPN.com this week.

Is there work to be done dealing with the 10 percent of missed or erroneous calls? Sure. But the NHL and its officials have long worked to provide constant feedback to on-ice officials with daily clips and updates on performances. There are standards that must be met before officials can ascend from the minor pro level to the NHL.

At the heart of the matter this season is the uncomfortable relationship between video and reality.

Every booted call is immediately seen and re-seen by anyone with a mind to watch it via YouTube, etc. The calls are instantly debated and dissected on Twitter, other forms of social media and hockey panels around North America.

Take the missed offside call in a game between Nashville and Colorado recently that allowed Matt Duchene to score a goal on a play that should have been blown dead. But that's an anomaly -- an outlier -- one mistake made by one of the best linesmen in the game among some 2,000 offside calls made thus far this season.

And yet the perception is that the standards of officiating have fallen below an acceptable line.

Matt Duchene, Aaron Palushaj
A missed offside call allowed Colorado's Matt Duchene to score against Nashville.

Is the answer to follow football into a system where video becomes not just a tool, but a crutch on any significant call? The NFL has become almost unwatchable thanks to the reliance on video replay, a bloated exercise in tedium that has gone from embracing technology to becoming wholly dependent on it.

Even then, the calls in football are never perfect. Not even close.

So, be careful what you wish for, NHL GMs and players. Isn't the natural lure of the game the dynamic pace of the game? Want to slow that down to see if a penalty was really a penalty?

Want to take a few minutes away from the action to determine if that player was really offside?

The game might be played inside the glass, but it doesn't stay inside the glass. That's something the league has to get a handle on and decide how it wants the game to look as the NHL pursues officiating that is as close to perfection as possible without changing the fabric of the game.

Big picture, other hockey leagues take their cues from the NHL on a host of fronts. If the carping about officiating is seen as acceptable at the highest level, it gives other teams at other levels leave to go after their own officials. The more officials are thrown under the bus, the less men and women will want to put on the striped shirts, stunting the ability to produce a new generation of competent on-ice officials.

The other issue that makes the NHL officials' job perhaps the most difficult in all of pro sports are the conflicting messages sent from the game's leaders.

At the GMs' meetings last spring in Florida, there were complaints that the officials had let the standard slide in calling obstruction penalties. So they called more. As they should. If it's a foul, call it. Call it in the first minute and in the third period. But don't complain when the call is made against you in the third.

And yet what of those GMs who insist they prefer referees get a "feel" for the game and call the game accordingly?

How are on-ice officials supposed to reconcile those competing notions?

NHL officials will call the game the way they are told to call it. We saw that reality coming out of the last lockout.

So far this season, there have been 30 percent more interference penalties called compared to last season. There have been twice as many instigator penalties than a year ago.

There have been more goaltender interference and more embellishment calls this season.

There's also the overriding issue of player safety that factors into the job of officiating.

The league continues to wrestle with how to reduce the number of injuries and, specifically, concussions and concussion-related injuries. The league has focused more on boarding calls and hits from behind.

Fair enough. Yet one source familiar with the process told ESPN.com that, at some point, players also have to be aware of their surroundings. How many times do players put themselves in vulnerable positions along the boards, turning away from oncoming opponents, ill-prepared to take a hit? This isn't about blaming the victim of a dangerous hit. It doesn't mitigate whether a penalty should be called -- most of the time they are. But the rules don't protect a player's health, they serve only to punish the offenders. A five-minute major and a game misconduct do not cure a concussion or a facial contusion. It's unclear whether players get that.

On Wednesday night, Toronto's Brown was given five minutes and a game misconduct for checking from behind on Josh Gorges. The replays showed that the hit came more from the side and that Gorges bounded right back to his feet.

Was it an overly aggressive call? No doubt.

But with player safety a priority, the play in real speed looked much worse than it was. The call was made. The Habs ended up scoring near the end of the five-minute power play en route to a 5-2 win.

Was it a factor in the win? Sure. Just as the Leafs' inability to generate any offense or the failure of its top line to score was a factor.

Given the alternative, to allow players to make dangerous plays with impunity, we'll take that call anytime.

Whining or no whining.