NHL Should Not Make Officials Available to the Media

Recently, my The Hockey Writer’s colleague Mark Scheig wrote a column detailing why the NHL should start making officials available to the media after the games, much in how it is done for players and coaches. The idea is that when calls are made that affect the game, the reasoning behind such a call, or even a non-call, deserves an explanation that can be shared with the public.

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As a member of the media, I thought long and hard about this, especially after a play at the end of Game 6 of the recent playoff series between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Toronto Maple Leafs when Lightning forward Brandon Hagel was clearly struck by a high stick in the head with just over a minute left in the game. Of course, the common questions of “How did the officials miss this?” and “is this a case of officials putting their whistles away in the third period” popped into my head.

Related: NHL Must Start Making Officials Available to the Media

However, even after that non-call and watching other playoff games where questions arise about the officiating, I am still in the camp of not having the NHL make officials available to the media.

Officials Need to be Invisible

At any sport or level, one of the first things they have been taught is that the contest is not about them. It was the message given to my son when he went to his training to be a youth hockey official and to me during pre-season coaches meeting when I coached high school football and wrestling. Nowadays, this has expanded to the recommendation that officials do not engage in social media regarding officiating. You would be hard-pressed to find a social media page or podcast that an official actively runs that engages in what calls he makes or doesn’t make because of the rule that they should strive to be the least visible aspect of a game.

hockey rule changes
NHL officials do not need extra scrutiny from the media (THW Archives)

Having the officials talk to the media on a regular basis would change all of that. They would now become part of the game, which may affect their officiating. Because officials have usually been allowed to be removed from the media, throwing them into this situation adds an extra burden to their jobs as they would know that at the end of the game, they will have to talk to the media about what happened on the ice. Officials have a chain of command in the NHL on who they answer for their performance. As much as we may want it to, it will usually not involve the media.

The NHL Has a Mechanism for Media Engagement

The advent of video replay has been both positive and negative for officials. The “situation room” in Toronto will theoretically correct any calls the officials may have missed, and the NHL does release the reasoning behind their decisions via their Public Relations Department. If there is a question about an official, the public relations department handles that communication to the teams and sometimes the media. Like it or not, this is sufficient for ensuring that an official does not become the primary focus of a game. There is little evidence that a referee’s call has been the one and only factor in determining the outcome of a game. In fact, referees prefer that the players determine the outcome of the game, not them (Everyone hates NHL playoff officiating. But here’s why it’s the way it is, The Athletic, April 26, 2023)

NHL referee Garrett Rank Carolina Hurricanes
NHL referee Garrett Rank waves off a goal by the Carolina Hurricanes (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

To this end, an interview with an official about a call would only yield more angst as the team at the short end of the call, as his explanation will do little to change anyone’s opinion. Let’s use a possible interview scenario from Game 3 of the Lightning-Maple Leafs series when an apparent Brayden Point goal was disallowed by what head coach Jon Cooper thought was a very quick whistle.

Reporter: Thanks for joining us. Why did you blow the whistle in that situation?

Referee: Well, from my vantage point, I thought the goaltender had control of the puck and blew my whistle, as the rules call for in that situation.

Reporter: Thanks for joining us.

Right or wrong, referees’ decisions are based on their judgment, and for the ones that cannot be overturned by video, an interview would only anger those who do not like the explanation. Plus, the vast majority of decisions are usually explained correctly by the rules experts, former officials themselves, that are a part of most national broadcasts. The desire of the media to get further explanations from the source does not override the need to allow the long-standing and correct practice of not allowing the officials to talk publically about their decisions.

Preventing More Referee Backlash

For various reasons, we have issues with how we treat officials. This has had the most effect in youth and local sports, where these officials do not have the benefit of stadium security to prevent issues from happening when someone takes issue with a call. Talking to the media would not help this. Too many people will not like the explanation, which may add to the anger they already carry around.

NHL Referees
NHL Referees do not need any more reasons to get unwarranted backlash from fans (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In thinking about this, I feel that if there were any access to officials, it would have been more appropriate to implement this 30 or so years ago, before technology improved and gave us better-quality pictures and replays. It might have been nice back then to hear what an official on the ice saw that may not have been captured completely in the limited video of the day.

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In order for there to be credibility in having NHL officials do their job, we need to respect the idea that officials must be allowed to do their jobs in the most anonymous way possible so that there is not an extra layer of outside bias that may eventually influence their decision-making.

Having regular access to the media has the potential to erode that credibility.