The biggest battle at the recent NHL board of governors meeting involved neither expansion nor salary caps. Instead, it was the fight over the handling of the coach’s challenge, a fight that has caused a rift within the league’s officiating staff.
On one side are the on-ice officials who, after a long and arduous boardroom struggle, won the right to mediate challenges at ice level. On the other side are the staffers of the War Room — the people in Toronto who have the final say on other matters, especially the validity of goals.
If a referee calls off a goal because he feels the goalie was subjected to interference, but a coach challenges the decision, it is the referee himself who looks at his rink-side monitor and decides whether his call was justified.
If the perceived goal is dubious — scored with a high stick, kicked in etc. — it is the War Room officials who decide whether it qualifies as the so-called “good goal.”
This is the first year of the coach’s challenge and both sides freely admit there have been some problems. As a result, the War Room people have demanded the right make the final decision. They say that it’s simply a matter of consistency. All the high-tech equipment is in Toronto and determining the validity of goals is the reason for their existence.
The referees on the other hand, say that not a single one of the War Room staff has ever been an on-ice official. They may know the rules and they can see the action but they don’t have a feel for the game.
Consider a scenario like this: A defenceman says to the ref, “That little weasel on the other team keeps jabbing our goalie. The next time he does it, I’m going to cross-check him across the forehead.”
The referee, who has noticed the transgressions, goes to the weasel and says, “If you want to bang away in front of the net, that’s okay. But keep your stick away from the goalie. That’s your final warning.”
Shortly afterwards, a goal is scored but the goalie was unable to slide across the crease because the weasel’s stick was in the way. “No goal,” says the ref.
The coach challenges because he says the contact was incidental.
The scene has been set. What happens next?
If the War Room is making the decision, they’re likely to side with the coach.
The referee, the guy who is on the ice and knows full well that he issued a warning and is going to be the one in the middle if the weasel’s actions precipitate a full-scale brawl, would stick to his guns. No goal.
So which is better for the game? The War Room might be more consistent, but if they repeatedly undermine the referees, they hurt the game in the long run.
The referees, being more numerous than War Room people, will be less consistent. But handling a game well is a delicate art. Sometimes rules have to be applied more harshly – or less harshly – in order to maintain order and let the game flow.
At the Board of governors meeting, the War Room people argued that some of the decisions by referees and linemen have caused the league embarrassment. Also, they say, too much time sometimes elapses between the call and the resolution.
The on-ice officials say it’s too early to pull the plug. A new rule is like a new shoe. It needs some breaking in.
A replay of every coach’s challenge is immediately dispatched to the officiating supervisors. The next morning, memos are sent to the all the referees and linemen explaining the decisions that were made and, if the call was wrong, explaining what should have been done. Also, the official in question gets a phone call.
According to the on-ice officials, the wrinkles are being worked out.
Granted, there have been poor calls. But when that happens, a precedent is not established for evermore. The morning-after memo will identify a bad interpretation and warn against repeats.
One of the problems for the on-ice officials is the size of their monitor. In some cases, they simply can’t get the definition required. When that happens, the War Room takes over and makes the decision.
That’s just further ammunition for the War Room people who say, “See, we have to come in and bail them out. Give us the job.”
The on-ice officials say that’s not the answer. “Provide better equipment,” they say. “Look at what the NFL refs have, compared to what we get.”
The on-ice officials won the most-recent battle. They fought hard to get this right and they’re not about to give it away easily. But the War Room people haven’t given up yet.
In the long run, this is good for the fans. Each side is battling to do a better job than the other. That can’t be bad.