Commentary

A tale of two officiating seasons

If one thing is clear in playoffs, it's that there is more than one way to call a game

Updated: June 11, 2013, 3:54 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- This from an NHL team executive with ties to the NFL competition committee: An NFL referee relays a story from a preseason meeting in which the message to football's on-field officials was this: Don't officiate the games like they do in the NHL, where calls change based on the time of season and situation in the game.

In other words, enforce the rules regardless of calendar, clock or score.

If only that were so in the National Hockey League.

It's not a new lament, and that makes all the more maddening the annual transmogrification of the standards by which NHL games are called come playoff time.

So ingrained in the psyche of most NHL teams that things will be different come playoff time that even when there is a game-changing -- nay, series-changing -- moment, hardly anyone bats an eye.

Take Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins. Double overtime. Jaromir Jagr gives Evgeni Malkin a quick but nonetheless obvious tug in the midsection with his stick. Malkin turns the puck over along the boards and Jagr starts the play that would end with Patrice Bergeron scoring the winner off a Brad Marchand centering pass.

The Bruins took a 3-0 series lead on that sequence of events en route to sweeping the Penguins. Thing is, the goal should not have counted. The play should have been blown dead and the Penguins given a power play.

"That's totally inexcusable. That has to be called," former referee Kerry Fraser told ESPN.com. "That's a has-to-be-called infraction at any time in the game."

In the aftermath, what was the most damning commentary? Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma's acknowledgment that although there was an obvious hook on the play, he didn't think for one second that at that time of the game a penalty would be called.

The puzzling part of that game is that there were four power-play opportunities in overtime, two for each team, including tripping and high sticking calls that were indeed fouls, along with a too many men on the ice call against the Bruins.

Still, we recall doing a radio interview that evening and a former NHL player complained that he thought the calls were ticky-tack.

I think the more you talk about officials the worse it gets. I learned the hard way. Just try and make them background noise. ... The game should be won 5-on-5 in the playoffs. Depth matters.

-- Veteran NHL coach
We think back to the second-round series between the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks, when Michael Frolik was given a penalty shot in the third period of Game 6. It was a great call; Carlo Colaiacovo whacked Frolik on the hands just enough to force Frolik to lose control of the puck. And yet there was much discussion about the call. Should it have been made? Would it have been made by another set of officials?

It was another indictment of the playoff mentality that an obvious call is a topic of discussion, not the player who committed a foul that allowed the game and, in this case, series to turn as Chicago won Game 6 to force a deciding Game 7, which the Hawks won in overtime.

We've spoken to a handful of coaches and GMs this spring and invariably the topic of officiating comes up. It comes up not as a typical bitch session but as a thoughtful discussion of how to make the game better.

• What do you think of the officiating?

• How could it be better?

• Why is it so inconsistent in the postseason?

We often critique teams based on how well they draft and develop young talent. Has the NHL put the necessary resources into drafting and developing young officials?

It's a hard job and it has been made harder by the proliferation of video and sports programming, as every missed call has the potential to be uploaded and seen by millions of eyes in a matter of minutes.

The abuse of young officials by parents and coaches at the minor hockey level is also a factor in developing a broad pool of officiating talent. As one coach told us this spring: Who could blame someone if he had no interest in becoming an official?

If that's the case, the NHL needs to work harder to open more doors in more locales to restock the pond. But the fundamental issue for the league is this: Does the league care that many within the game not only accept that the officiating in the playoffs is going to change not just within the postseason -- games called less and less tightly as the playoffs go along -- but within the games themselves?

How many by-the-book fouls went uncalled in Chicago's 4-3 double-overtime victory in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals against the Los Angeles Kings?

Did anyone complain, at least publicly, afterward?

Nope.

One veteran coach told us that he stopped worrying about playoff officiating long ago.

"I think the more you talk about officials, the worse it gets," he said. "I learned the hard way. Just try and make them background noise." Then he added, "The game should be won 5-on-5 in the playoffs. Depth matters."

He decried the meetings with league officials that teams have or request in every series.

"A bunch of whining in my opinion," he said.

Maybe the game isn't the worse for this if players and coaches are on board. But here's the problem: If it's OK with coaches and players (and, presumably, the league), it merely adds to the notion for the casual or novice fan that hockey is an impenetrable fortress.

We spoke with one team executive who said the problem with the dramatic difference in how playoff games are called from game to game and period to period -- especially as it relates to the standards set in the regular season -- is that it makes casual fans feel at best confused and at worst stupid.

They watch a game in the regular season and see a player make contact with an opposing player, impede his progress, obstruct him, take his hand off his stick and grab him, and the referee's arm goes up and a penalty is called. They get that. They come to expect it, and that understanding gives them a connection to the game.

A week later it's the playoffs and there's no guarantee that the calls get made.

And if it's overtime or a Game 7, well, the odds that you'll see calls made decrease further.

"This lack of objectivity makes [fans] feel they're not in the know," the team executive said.

Does this lack of clarity have a negative impact on the game's growth?

If it does, it's something team owners and players should have a keen interest in improving given that they share the revenue pie.

"The officiating group looks to please their bosses," Fraser said.

And that means hockey operations, and it should include the competition committee, a hybrid owner-player group that OKs changes to the game.

Take it a step further.

The NHL promotes its skilled players, as it should. Yet, at the most important time of the season, the league allows rules to be altered, making it more difficult for skilled players to shine. Thus, teams have to make a choice between having a roster of skilled players or of those who can grind out games.

Detroit, Chicago and Pittsburgh won Cups in the past five years with teams that emphasize skill and puck possession, but the Kings ground opponents into the ice last spring, establishing the idea that you must choose between the two.

"I think it's a false choice," the executive said.

In the end, wouldn't it be simpler if a penalty was a penalty was a penalty, end of story?

[+] EnlargeBruins vs. Penguins
Jim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesJaromir Jagr disrupts Evgeni Malkin just enough to force a series-affecting turnover in Boston's Game 3 victory in double overtime. The B's swept the Pens.
Would the game become less exciting?

It's how the NFL approaches it, and if there is a model for popularity, it's pro football. It's not perfect, of course, but you are as likely to see a pass interference or unsportsmanlike conduct or holding penalty in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl as you are in the first quarter of a Week 1 game.

Fans, players and coaches have come to accept that. It's part of the football culture.

The NFL model puts the lie to the notion that players should decide the game, not officials. The two will always be inexorably linked.

For instance, how does that notion apply to the Malkin-Jagr situation? How is not calling that penalty not playing a role in the outcome?

It's the ultimate in passive aggressiveness to say we don't want referees to interfere with the game and yet by not interfering referees of course sometimes play an integral role in the outcome.

We have been around officials long enough to know that they will call what they are told to call. They will apply whatever standards they are instructed to apply. Was it not so coming out of the last lockout, when the NHL essentially redefined itself by simply calling the rules that were already on the books?

Yes, it took time for players to understand that they couldn't hook, hold and block opponents as they had in the past. But while players learn to adjust, the problem is they also are smart enough to know they can un-adjust come playoff time.

The reason it worked after the previous lockout was that the league had buy-in at all levels. Now there are complaints from within that structure, and mixed messages are delivered to officials.

"The fear factor is the best thing that the referee has in his arsenal," Fraser said.

The idea is that certain acts will always garner penalties.

"When that's lost, when the fear factor is lost, then the referees are flying by the seat of their pants," Fraser said.

It would be nice if, someday, fans didn't have to adjust their sensibilities when watching the playoffs, just as it'd be nice for officials not to reset their meters once the puck drops in the postseason. And it would be nice if, someday, the league weren't held up as a negative barometer by other pro sports leagues.