Could the NHL start the season without their referees?

In some overlooked but breaking news, The Hockey Newsis reporting that only two weeks before the NHL is scheduled to begin playing preseason games, the league has yet to reach a new collective bargaining agreement with their referees, with their last agreement having expired this past August 31st.

Talks are ongoing between the two sides, which may indicate that a new agreement could be reached in time to start the preseason, however THN is reporting that the NHL has contacted the ECHL to inquire whether they would be interested in loaning their referees to temp for the jobs while the two sides iron out a contract.

One minor league official told The Hockey News that he "think(s) it is wrong to be a scab. I would never be a replacement (official), but there are a lot of my colleagues that are surprisingly jumping at the chance.”

Not much news has been made available as both the league and the NHLOA have remained quiet on the matter. While neither side will officially comment, or even, apparently, confirm whether their CBA has actually expired or not, several officials even contacted THN to tell them that their contract had indeed not expired. The NHL says otherwise, and the fact that minor league officials have been contacted speaks for itself.

The referees and linesmen recently completed their annual training camp and received their preseason assignments, but there is a chance that they could remain on the sidelines when the games begin on September 9th.

While monetary issues are sure to be at the forefront, the following quote from the same minor-league official that contacted THN is very interesting: “The guys say the supervisor will tell them one thing in the dressing room after the game then file something else with the league and the guys don’t have access to that. The guys feel like they’re walking on egg shells all the time.”

While this comment and all the rest could be interpreted in many ways, the thought that performance and how the referees are evaluated and dealt raises a very interesting topic of discussion.

For years, decades, even, fans have complained about the referees and the effect that they have on it seems like every single game. Since the lockout, the officials have become a much bigger part of the game than they were probably ever intended to be.

We don't really need to go back and look at specific examples, but even just over the past season, how many times have we gathered on forums, blogs, and social networks to complain about missed called, weak penalties and some dumbfounding decisions taken by the referees? And even though many of those cases were clear cut and pretty obvious to most, seldom would the NHL do anything to remedy the situation.

The peak of referee issues in the NHL probably came in January of this year, where an issue between referee Stephane Auger and Vancouver Canucks forward Alex Burrows made headlines, and even led to Ron Maclean going on an 11-minute rant, siding with Auger in the dispute. For those who don't remember what happened, Burrows alleged that Auger was after him during a game against the Nashville Predators in which Burrows was penalized for seemingly no reason, a penalty which would cost the Canucks the game.

Whether Burrows concerns were real or fabricated was never revealed, as the issue was quickly swept under the rug by the league and Auger was left (seemingly) unpunished. The dispute led me to write this post, which I plan to revisit before the season opens.

In any case, referee issues are real in the NHL. I don't think there is anyone who will argue that the August/Burrows incident as well as countless missed and blown calls could be better handled. While it may be a pipe dream, we can only hope that the NHL is trying to put into place better measures of accountability and evaluation for the referees, so that issues like this could be properly dealt with when they arise, or, better yet, completely avoided.

At no point in their career should a player feel like a referee is "after them" or that a referee intends to purposely influence a game. A referee, by definition, is meant to be an impartial enforcer of the rules of the sport, not someone with a vendetta. Incidents like the Auger case of this past year are an affront and an embarrassment to the league, and while I may be beating a dead horse here, it's an issue that people definitely need to be reminded of.

Simply put, things like that shouldn't happen. Ever.

And we haven't even begun to discuss all the missed penalties, illegal goals, bad offsides and all the other issues that plague the NHL and the referees year in and year out.

Many have speculated as to the reason for the seeming reduction in quality of officiating over the last few years. The increased speed and intensity of the game, the demands from the teams, the league and the fans to increase scoring and improve the flow of games, not to mention the passing of one referee to two from not too long ago (in essence doubling the amount of required referees and thinning the herd a fair bit) are amongst the cited issues for the increased number of problems, but none of these are reasons for the issues being swept under the rug or ignored when they do arise.

While speculation of whether referees like Auger or Chris Lee having vendettas or biases against certain players or teams may be myths and exaggerations, to say that there is a problem may be an understatement.

And while we're getting a little off course here, and the problems are likely to be mostly about compensation, travel schedules and pension plans, we can only hope that the NHL is using this opportunity for a serious discourse on the quality of officiating in the NHL and the clear lack of accountability and public evaluation for arguably one of the most important groups of people in the NHL.

Although considering the NHL's usual policy of "shut up and don't talk about it", it seems unlikely that any real change is forthcoming.

At the very least, I can hope that this topic and this news that the NHL's referees could be locked out come the start of preseason play can start an interesting discourse amongst fans and media.

It's certainly better than arguing over petty non-sense like the mainstream media versus the bloggers "debate" that has plagued my computer screen way too often the last few weeks. With hockey approaching and teams getting ready for training camp, it's time to start talking about big boy issues once again.

With that said, do you think the season could start without the "big-league" referees, and if so, do you think that the NHL will take the opportunity to seriously examine the state of officiating in the league?