The Absurdity of Criticizing NHL Officials

The lack of respect for NHL officials is appalling; and with the playoffs in full swing, no other group has served as the perfect scapegoat. While nobody is perfect, including officials, chastising the men in stripes is laughably absurd. The challenges they face just to make it to the NHL exceed far beyond what the average person encounters and endures within their own occupation. But whether it’s pure ignorance, or the result of being severely misled, there is an overwhelming presence of “ref-bashing” throughout the media and among fans. [By the way, if you like this post – sign up for our free newsletter to get more of our best stories]

NHL officials are an elite group with a special skill set.
NHL officials are an elite group with a special skill set. (Flickr/Clydeorama)

The Elite Company of NHL Officials

With 66 full time positions, the NHL’s 33 referees and 33 linesmen are part of an exclusive club. But they didn’t draw a lucky lottery ticket, or win a game of Bingo in a smoke-filled roller rink to get to that elite status. Much to the surprise of many, NHL officials weren’t just dropped in the NHL, where they just fell off the turnip truck.

“There are so many people that helped me to where I am today,” said first year official Tom Chmielewski. “My father started officiating with me so it has always been great to discuss things with him. My mother and sister have been extremely supportive throughout it all, and allowing my father and I to talk hockey all the time.”

Officials with professional aspirations find themselves at one of the various camps and or training schools that are present within Canada and the U.S. As representatives from professional and junior hockey leagues are present, they are taught the in’s and out’s of officiating the game at the professional level.

“The staff and supervisors of the USA Hockey Officiating Development Program got me off to a great start and prepared me to be a professional referee,” added Chmielewski. “Joe Ernst and the supervisors of the ECHL taught me how to be a professional and really improved my game. There are countless others who have helped me along the way and I couldn’t thank them enough.”

Obviously, not everyone who wants to join the prestigious group of NHL officials can or will. Along with a strong work ethic that results in tip-top fitness, there are certain things that just cannot be taught. Instinctual attributes, which include natural anticipation, and situation handling can be developed through the lower levels of professional hockey; but the “it” factor is ultimately something either an official has or doesn’t have.

Former NHL official Kerry Fraser described one learning experience he endured while in the minors that involved a bench-clearing brawl. Fraser, who was self-described as “inexperienced” at the time, alluded to not only handling difficult situations, but improving from constructive criticism.

“At the conclusion of the game, commissioner Bill Beagan kindly guided me in a teaching way as to what I should do when (not if) this situation was to present itself,” recalled Fraser. “Before he departed the officials’ room he left me with this final thought that has stuck throughout all these years when he said:

“‘Kerry remember this, from experience you will acquire judgment; from poor judgment you will acquire experience!'”

NHL Officials in the Playoffs


As we’ve seen throughout the early portion of the playoffs, much criticism has been hurled at the NHL officials who were assigned the privilege of working in the postseason. From television commentators, to run-of-the-mill hockey fans, finding unkind words directed at the officiating has not been in short supply.

In the second period of Game Three between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens, an apparent go-ahead goal for Tampa Bay was waived off and confirmed as a “no goal” after the officials briefly huddled. As the commentators raged on at the officials’ alleged “blunder,” fans took to Twitter to express their outrage. After the game, in which the Habs would go onto win and take an advantageous 3-0 series lead, Lightning coach John Cooper joined the frenzy.

“I was (angry) then, and I’m (angry) now,” Cooper said. “It’s tough to walk in that locker-room and look those guys in the eye when clearly that was our best game of the series. They deserved a better fate tonight.”

Whether or not the disallowed goal was the correct call gives nobody the right, or high ground to blame the outcome of the game on the officials. After all, were the officials to blame that the Lightning gave up a goal in the first 11 seconds of the game? Oh, but it’s their fault that the disallowed goal caused Tampa Bay to lose focus, and ultimately give up another two goals even after the Bolts scored again? Right.

Give credit to Cooper, however, for ultimately showing professionalism and understanding for the isolated incident.

“I know what I would have judged, but I’m one person and I’m extremely biased,” said Cooper. “But I thought it was a good goal. So it’s hard to argue. In my opinion, I saw it differently. But he’s the one making the call, he’s a human being, he sees it one way, I see it another.”

Few fans (and actual personnel for that matter) actually know the rules of the game inside and out. This pertains to the commentators who blast the officiating on a nightly basis. These are opinions; and while you don’t expect to hear how to execute a proper power play attack from an official, the same logic should apply for those who have never officiated.

But the playoffs matter more. Shouldn’t NHL officials be held to the highest of standards?

I can assure you they are. But before expunging on that, where did the notion that all games aren’t important come from? After all, aren’t the regular season games played to determine who qualifies for the playoffs? Furthermore, holding playoff officials to “higher standards” must mean those chosen have passed the standards set for the regular season with flying colors. Kerry Fraser explained more on that process:

“The NHL officiating department, under the direction of former referee and colleague Terry Gregson, conducts an internal evaluation and rating system throughout the regular season and Stanley Cup playoffs. Terry’s supervisory staff attend games during the season and provide computer-generated reports on each official’s performance. His staff includes former NHL officials such as Bill McCreary, Don Koharski, Mick McGeough, Rob Shick and Kevin Collins, who supervise NHL games.

“Areas of skating, positioning, penalty selection, communication and comportment, game control, team work and face-offs (linesmen) are graded. General comments would be included on the bottom of the form as to how the official performed throughout the game and if anything of consequence was observed, positive and/or negative.”

As you can see, the NHL officials that are being berated throughout the playoffs aren’t just some jokers pulled out of the poker room.

But what about obvious blown calls? I can’t tell you how many of those I’ve seen, and we’re only in the first round!

To this I’d say, cool your jets. Hockey is a game that is not nearly as black and white as other sports may be. And while officiating other sports bring their own set of challenges and obstacles, NHL officials are often subjected to using discretion and game management. With the playing surface as confined as it is, the men in stripes use their outstanding agility to avoid contact with pucks, sticks, and players. When added to deciphering the difference between a trip and a dive in a second’s time, the job isn’t nearly as easy as the guy or gal on the couch thinks.

Missed calls are part of any sport; they happen. It’s the human effect so to speak. But before one advocates replacing them with updated technology that would no longer require the human side of the profession, ask yourself if the game would ever be the same. The answer is undoubtedly no, and not for the better. Not to mention, who would support taking actual good paying jobs away from people? People who have proven they have earned the right to be there in the first place.

NHL Officials & Favortism?

Suggesting that NHL officials show "hometown favoritism" is as ridiculous as believing Pittsburgh native R.J. Umberger would help the Penguins beat his Blue Jackets.
Suggesting that NHL officials show “hometown favoritism” is as ridiculous as believing Pittsburgh native R.J. Umberger would help the Penguins beat his Blue Jackets. (Danielle Browne/THW)

Hockey fanhood is at an all-time high during the playoffs. With the feverish cheering and rooting also comes a level of unrealistic and irrational thinking. One in particular is the belief that NHL officials have a dog in this race. It’s easy for fans to get caught up in pulling for their team to see things through the pair of their own biased goggles, as fellow THW writer, Bill Schoeninger recently pointed out. But when the roles are reversed, as former NHL official, Paul Stewart points out, the idea of securing a win for one’s hometown is beyond crazy.

“Let’s apply the same “logic” to a player’s professionalism and motivation. Columbus Blue Jackets forward R.J. Umberger is a Pittsburgh native. If he turns a puck over and the Penguins score a goal, was it because it he was secretly pulling for the Penguins to win their series against his Columbus team? 

“That thought is laughable. Well, so is the idea that a referee or linesman who works his way up to the NHL has an allegiance toward — or a “bias” against — a team because of his hometown or home province. That is not how we are wired.”

I’m confident to declare that NHL officials are more focused on performing their craft with the highest accuracy to worry about who’s going to win or lose. This isn’t to suggest that they are oblivious to the score of each game since the score itself is indicative of game management and handling situations. But to accuse those in charge of keeping order of treating the game as if it were a professional wrestling event is misguided and flat out ignorant.

Back in 2010, Adam Proteau of the Hockey News responded to such a question in an open Q & A on the publication’s website. His reply to a writer named “Kevin” was contrite and to the point.

“Dear Kevin,

No, I’m afraid it’s you. 

And I’m a little surprised a guy who is a referee would be insinuating that the league and its officials are in cahoots to provide unfair advantages to big-market teams; if that’s true, I suppose NHL refs must have missed the memo when Tampa Bay, Carolina and Anaheim won Stanley Cups.”

While fans pay the price of a ticket to see the players, lambasting NHL officials is utterly unnecessary. And although the officials themselves know that it’s part of the territory, who wants to ignorantly and aloofly go through anything in life? We all like to think we’re as informed as the next guy; but with the ongoing armchair officiating, that’s not a compliment. Let’s open our minds to a different perspective – one that the game cannot go on without.


24 thoughts on “The Absurdity of Criticizing NHL Officials”

  1. This is the worst article I’ve ever read. The obvious bias towards the officials is oozing from every word printed. Are they human, yes. Do they make mistakes, yes. SHOUKD THEY MAKE AS MANY MISTAKES AS THEY DO, NO!!! One bad mistake sometimes does affect the outcome of a game because the person/people on the wrong side of that call are fuming and focused on something other than the game so they are not in the zone in the right manner.
    It also seems like from game to game the bad calls are for 1 team making it seem the officials are looking for a certain outcome. I’d even go as far as saying individual players are granted certain privileges over others by the officials. God forbid a Crosby or a Kane has something done to them as they do all the time…

  2. Notice who is agreeing with your article, almost all of the commenter who agree with you are officials themselves. A little biased?? I think so! So if the athletes are supposed to work hard and do their best and are vilified for not doing so, why should referees be given a pass for the exact same thing? Yes people make mistakes, bu the difference is that professionals should by definition make less mistakes. Like you said, these guys have worked their butts off trying to get to this level and should be the cream of the crop officiating the playoffs. That is why the spectators bitch and complain when an obvious penalty is not called. Another example of bias. When Logan Couture was tripped and leg humped by J. Quick, the ref just sat there stared at the penalty and skated by without making a call. This BS act by Quick gave them a very short power play until Quick final finished his business and let go of his leg. So what is the excuse for this?? This is the type of crap no call that gets fans pissed when EVERYONE IN THE WHOLE ARENA SAW IT, yet nothing was done.

    So your article is nice fluff piece for the ref’s, but as long as they keep performing like little league level refs, the fans will treat them like one!!!

    • I find it ironic that this piece is being accused of bias. Uhhh, says the fan that is watching the game with a bias himself? There are factors to everything you see. The violation could not have an impact on the game itself, it could be two guilty parties, or it could be a missed call. The fans have a right to do whatever they want. But until they know the game/rules to the degree that the on-ice officials do, they’re merely being ignorant. Sorry.

  3. Do mistakes happen? Of course.
    Can a call get missed here and there? Certainly.

    Should someone who gets paid $110,000 to $250,000 a year miss as many call as been missed in this years playoffs? Absolutely not.

    I just glanced at the comments. Does anyone that is not an official agree with you?

    • Perhaps those who are officials are the ones looking at this from a standpoint that fanhood blinds.

      The market determines what the league pays their personnel. If the current roster is not “worthy” of making the money they make, who is?

  4. Umm, how bout the Avs-Wild game Saturday night guys? This was an embarrassment to NHL officiating. There were 2 dozen non-calls in this one, several egregious, and several called infractions that either didn’t occur, or were so blatantly inconsistent with what hadn’t been called earlier in the game, the players couldn’t have known how to approach the game. These existed throughout the game, including the final 5 minutes. After a very hard-fought and close contest, to have the game decided in the final 1.5 minutes of regulation by two officiating “judgements” within 10 seconds leading to an unfair advantage for one of the teams was a travesty. Conspiracy? No. Cheating? No. Favoring one team? No. 4 officials having a horrifically bad night? Yup. Incompetent? Professional Hockey Playoffs deserve the best officiating available. The crew working Pepsi Center in Denver Saturday night are not the best and should not work another NHL playoff game this season.

    • As most of us have seen, this particular game has garnered a lot of attention. But there are some things that you, and a lot of others are not taking into consideration. But before I touch on that, I want to visit the comment you made as to the players not knowing how to “approach the game.”

      It’s the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The intensity level raises to the point that even non-fans become interested in watching these games. With that being said, when the physicality of the sport raises to that level, there’s obviously a lot more infractions happening. With a heightened style of play, the players have answered that question already. This also puts the officials in a “no-win” situation. On one hand, if they call everything, they compromise the flow of the game, as well as the entertainment value. Much like football, where there’s “holding” on every play, the entire game would consist of special teams units being on the ice for the entire game. On the other, if they don’t call a particular penalty, which benefits the fan’s team, they’re “atrocious.” And while it’s already been said that no official is perfect, determining their ability and or competency based on the outcome of a game in which a person has rooting interests isn’t a very sturdy process.

      Other factors that go into this game is Minnesota’s ineffectiveness on the power play. If the Wild convert on any of their 3 power plays, there is no late game equalizer. With all the attention going to Charlie Coyle being held, it was difficult to see in real time, not to mention Coyle was jostling with the defender himself. This is not to say a no-call was right or wrong. But it is definitely easy to see why it wasn’t called nonetheless.

      Furthermore, Darcy Keumper has been very good for Minnesota overall in this series. If he stops Parenteau’s shot, again, this wouldn’t have to be addressed. But because Minnesota didn’t do what they needed to do to win the game, the officials get blamed instead of the players themselves. Every team meets adversity throughout the regular season and playoffs. It’s the Champions that overcome them. No matter who gets blamed, it doesn’t change the fact that the Minnesota Wild lost the game.

      And before publicly stating who should or shouldn’t be working a particular series, one should have a masterful handle on officiating the game; not just what they see or hear on a television replay or broadcast. My response is not intended to come off as rude, and I hope you do not take it as such. Thanks for reading and responding.

  5. I have only been officiating for a few years, but it is remarkable how little respect we are given at any level. There is never a time where both teams are happy. I loved your article. I was hoping it would open some eyes, but judging by the other comments not everyone cares for critical thinking. I love officiating, but I would never want to advance to higher levels because of the sheer pressure. It takes a very thick-skinned kind of person to handle it, and like most people, my skin just isn’t thick enough.

  6. I have several friends that are officials at all levels. I have seen them work hard and go from the minors to the NHL. They work just as hard as players of not harder to get were they are. I have also seen dreams crushed for these guys as well. The key point to remember is that they are human and mistakes will happen. You also must remember that they are looking at the game from a much different angle than your tv or seat in the stands. The 2 ref system has helped but keep in mind that there are lots of things that they are watching not just what is right in front of them.

  7. As an official that has done college level games and down, I agree with you completely that fans, and sometimes coaches, don’t understand the rules. It does take a special type of person to officiate at the highest levels. Every year, I teach USA Hockey officials how important it is to be consistent. In my opinion, I think that’s been the problem. The consistency of what gets called as a penalty had been different not only from game to game, but sometimes from period to period in the same game. I typically enjoy watching the refs during a game more than the players. The NHL refs are doing a good job, they’ve simply had a few bad scenarios (which happens to every ref).

  8. I just watched the Pittsburgh play Columbus…..I totally disagree with your article and some of the views about the referees. It is a tough job….but for sure some stars and teams are definitely favoured. You mention Kerry Fraser…….he was an absolute joke.
    Pittsburg could of had 10 penalties in the third period alone….none were called. The refs could not see the Pittsburg Penguins after the first half of the first period. The referees, Tim Peel and Chris Rooney were totally blind to any Pittsburgh infractions. The refs can sometimes ruin a game or a whole playoff series. I am totally unbiased as “my” team was not playing.
    As far as the NHL having the best refs…………get a life.

    • I too watched the game, Richard; and yes, Pittsburgh appeared to get away with some things here or there – most notably, James Neal’s high-stick to Bobrovsky. But you, like myself, only saw what television replays showed. How do we not know that Columbus got away with some infractions along the way as well? In hockey, it’s literally impossible to see everything. Furthermore, I never said hockey (or any other for that matter) officials never miss a call.

      The game of hockey isn’t as black and white as you appear to believe it is. The officials DID NOT cost Columbus the game, nor did they give Pittsburgh the win. The Pens dominated the stat sheet with 51 shots on net, as well as winning 8 more faceoffs. Those are bigger factors than a questionable “no-call.”

  9. Great article, as a referee myself I always find myself defending the officials. Let’s see all the complainers try to make these calls at game speed without the luxury of watching 4 or 5 replays after the fact. Only correction would be that Stephen Walkom is back in charge of the officials, as he took over for Terry last summer.

  10. Loved your article! I officiate from college level and down. The main problem is fans do not know the rules. The call in the Tampa/habs gm was correct, but that rule needs to looked at for possible change. One commented on a “make-up” call, no such thing! I could go on with so many thought and stories but I won’t bore you. Thanks! Well done.

  11. Your article is well written, I just don’t agree with your premise. It’s okay to disagree. I don’t make threats to officials or wish them bodily harm, but I’m not going to apologize for complaining when I see them doing a poor job. Do they often do their jobs correctly, sure, but they’re not weather forecasters. They can’t be right only half the time and still be considered successful. ;)

    • I appreciate your compliment and agree that there’s nothing wrong with disagreeing. I hope you didn’t take my last response as one that had any malice in it whatsoever. I’m grateful you took the time to respond and have your voice be heard.

  12. What’s absurd is to expect hockey fans not to criticize officials who continually, consistently, blow calls, whistle plays dead too quickly, and flat out show bias during games. Ever seen a “make-up call?” That’s bias.

    Poor officiating in any sport is bad for the game because it takes the ability to determine the outcome away from the players on the field/ice/court. Do a few bad apples (Tim Peel) spoil it for everyone else? Yes. Should I laugh off a blow call because “mistakes happen?” Hell no, lol. The idea is laughable.

    • NHL officials “continually and consistently” blow calls? That’s news to me. And I’m guessing the “whistling plays dead too quickly” comment is aimed at the Tampa Bay-Montreal series? If so, that’s a single incident. Second, early whistles aren’t necessarily the result of an official’s error. If the official cannot see the puck, he blows the whistle. What do you want them to do? Guess and leave it live? That sounds like a winning idea. Especially when the puck gets knocked or poked out of the goalie’s possession and into the net for a goal. Then we’re right back to square one…. blown call!!!!

      Obviously, some will never see this subject from a different point of view, which is a shame because they really are the best at what they do. Ever notice how nobody credits them when nothing controversial happens?

      • Andy, you can’t possibly be that simple…there have been millions of hockey games in the 100+ year history of the sport in dozens of leagues in dozens of countries. To take a person’s complaint about blown calls and reference one very recent event shows just how weak your argument really is.
        Several NHL refs have written books about their careers and the art of officiating and even they concede to many of the notions your tried to dispell.

        • Obviously I used the Tampa Bay – Montreal scenario since it was the latest. It wasn’t thee only incident to choose from, but like I said, it was the most recent. It was used to help illustrate the point.

          If it’s in a book, it must be true. Sarcasm aside, I haven’t read those books. They may disagree with certain things in this article, and that’s fine. Nobody writes a book, however, with no intentions of selling them.

  13. Andy, I couldn’t agree more with your article. I’m an official in Minnesota (high level high school and down) and I find it utterly insane when someone mentions that refs were “against” their team. When I’m officiating, I couldn’t care less who wins. What I do care about, is making sure the game is played evenly so that the talent, hustle, grit, and determination of one team is what compels them to win. Not some call/non-call in the first period. And I will also say that the NHL officials are the best in the world. If people have a problem with their calls (or non-calls) I’d wholeheartedly invite those people to lace up a pair of skates and put on the stripes and get out on the ice. Heck, I’ll even lend them my whistle.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Riley. I wish you nothing but the best in your officiating career. Just remember, you may not have many people on your side, but you do have some. I’ll always be one of them.

Comments are closed.