Editorials

NHL’s Referees Have Been Set Up For Failure

By Colin Likas
Jan 15, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Chicago Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville gets an explanation from the officials about a disallowed goal by the Blackhawks in the first period as assistant coach Kevin Dineen looks on against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre. The Blackhawks beat the Maple Leafs 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 15, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Chicago Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville gets an explanation from the officials about a disallowed goal by the Blackhawks in the first period as assistant coach Kevin Dineen looks on against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre. The Blackhawks beat the Maple Leafs 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports /
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I’ve used this space to previously make light of the NHL’s “intent to blow the whistle” rule — or, more specifically, how ridiculous it is. I likely bashed the game’s referees a bit (no doubt Stephen Walkom was a center point of my discontent) before making my point about how the NHL should abolish or amend the rule.

Well, we have a new controversy to deal with, but there’s no reason for me to be upset at the referees. In fact, the NHL has really given its on-ice officials a bum deal when it comes to a pair of problems: the goaltender interference call, and the coach’s challenge. And it’ll soon be time for the league to address these issues … but the changes likely won’t come soon enough.

The Chicago Blackhawks have been burned twice by a combination of the two rules in two of their last four games. Goals by Marian Hossa against Arizona and Brandon Mashinter against San Jose were waved off due to perceived goaltender interference by Hossa and Dennis Rasmussen, respectively.

Hossa’s overturned goal

Mashinter’s overturned goal

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville was angry enough to get a minor penalty against Arizona, and he expressed similar frustration both on the bench and at his very brief press conference after the San Jose game.

Now, if you’re a Blackhawks fan, you obviously hated the overturning of the goals. But it’s hard to see, even if you aren’t a Blackhawks fan, how these goals could be overturned. In both instances, the goaltender apparently wasn’t allowed to cleanly play the puck … and both times it was because a Blackhawks player (Hossa against Arizona, Rasmussen against San Jose) was pushed into the goaltender. But because both Hossa and Rasmussen didn’t immediately skate away to try and take up another position and give the goaltender a 100 percent clean look, they were deemed the causes of interference. How does that make any sense? You want someone to give his team less chance of scoring a goal just so his elbow doesn’t graze the goaltender’s shoulder for a second or two? (That’s how I saw the Rasmussen “contact,” by the way).

From my point of view, Coach Q is angry about two things, and neither of them are the on-ice officials’ fault. The first has to do with Rule 69 in the NHL rulebook. It’s a multi-pronged rule, but it all deals with goaltender interference. There are two very important parts to this rule that conflict heavily and create confusion for everyone on the ice. The first:

“If an attacking player has been pushed, shoved, or fouled by a defending player so as to cause him to come into contact with the goalkeeper, such contact will not be deemed contact initiated by the attacking player for purposes of this rule, provided the attacking player has made a reasonable effort to avoid such contact.”

If the referee determines that this rule comes into effect during a scoring play, then a goal can be allowed. Of course, the idea that an attacking player needs to make an effort to avoid a shove from an opposing player trying to clear his goaltender’s crease is absurd, and it’s also impossible to judge if a player made a reasonable effort to avoid such contact. So this prong of the rule causes confusion for referees and coaches alike. But then you compound it with this:

“If an attacking player initiates contact with a goalkeeper, incidental or otherwise, while the goalkeeper is in his goal crease, and a goal is scored, the goal will be disallowed.”

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This part of the rule completely contradicts the previous part of the rule I highlighted above. This is a big reason why NHL referees can’t seem to make the right call on the ice concerned goals that should or should not be allowed due to alleged goaltender interference. And it’s why hockey lifers like Quenneville get so upset when plays go down this way.

But there’s another issue at play that is equally infuriating for coaches and players, and it has to do with the coach’s challenge itself. While the idea is strong in theory, it has not be properly executed thus far. The main problem is that the video reviews that come with the coach’s challenge are up to the discretion of the head on-ice official at each location, and not a centralized location like reviews in the war room in Toronto.

There needs to be a singular viewpoint from the league with regard to the coach’s challenge, not viewpoints from whichever referee happens to be in charge of an on-ice foursome that night. One referee can see and interpret a play differently than the next referee, and the referee after him. If all coach’s challenges were instead sent to a centralized location, there would be far less anger and confusion regarding the process of reviewing key plays. On top of that, it’s putting a ton of pressure on a single on-ice official who, as we’ve discussed above, has been given a contradictory rulebook to work with in the first place.

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My biggest concern with the coach’s challenge and goaltender interference combination isn’t that it might affect regular-season games, though. My concern is that it will have a major impact on a postseason game, and there’s nothing the league can do about it until the season is over. Gary Bettman was quoted in Chicago yesterday as saying he thinks the coach’s challenge system is working very well right now, so we may not see changes even after this season concludes.

That would be truly unfortunate, as the current system for coach’s challenges and judging goaltender interference is flawed and detrimental not only to players and coaches, but also to officials on the ice.

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