Things That Are Getting Old: Blaming the Refs

I’ve decided to forgo my usual “It Hab-Ened Last Night” Habs recap in order to discuss something that’s been nagging me since the season started, and really as far back as last season. There has certainly been no shortage of subjects to discuss through two weeks of NHL action, including headshots and the microscope over any contact that results in a player injury, not to mention the salary cap troubles facing the New Jersey Devils that I’ve been pretty vocal about and against.

And while it may seem crass to push those issues to the side in order to talk about the subject of this blog, there really is a nagging issue in the NHL that easily gets overlooked. Fans, analysts, and even the players and coaches of teams are often quick to dismiss their losses and blame them onto the referees.

Let’s face it, ref blaming as been around as long as the league itself. It really isn’t anything new or anything to be surprised about. Ref blaming has almost taken on a life of its own in recent years.

Recently retired referee Kerry Fraser was well-known to fans late in his career. Now that he is retired, most will have nothing but good things to say about the 2,150+ game veteran, but there was no arena in the NHL that didn’t know who Fraser was when he was referring a game, as he’s heard his fair share of taunting and boos throughout his career.

Another such referee that seems to be bigger than the games he’s calling is Chris Lee. Take it from me, Montreal fans cringe every time he’s on the schedule to call a game in Montreal, and from a fan’s perspective, it’s almost as if he enjoys the attention enthralled upon him by the fans after he takes control of a game with the calls he makes. Whether fans are justified in their judgement of a referee such as Lee is questionable, but the fact that Lee has reffed nearly 450 regular season games in the NHL, and only 4 playoff games certainly works against him.

Add to the list Stéphane Auger, who made plenty of headlines last winter in the whole issue with Alex Burrows of the Vancouver Canucks. According to Burrows, Auger uttered something to Burrows that made him believe that Auger would call the game against Burrows and the Canucks as revenge for a non-call in a previous game that made Auger look bad. Needless to say, the Canucks lost the game and a controversy ensued, and it was heavily documented all over the web, especially on this very site. Auger’s actions were never confirmed, as the issue was seemingly swept under the rug by the league.

This past winter’s issue wasn’t the first with Auger, as he is also known for penalizing Shane Doan for a “racist remark” back in 2005, an issue that actually ended up making political headlines, even though it was concluded that the remarks were baseless.

Still, just like Lee, the evidence is clearly stacked against Auger when you notice that through over 500 NHL games refereed, Auger has only made ten playoff appearances.

As you can see, it’s clearly a case-by-case issue. Sure, there are some referees that seem to be worse than other, and the NHL recognizes this by cutting them come playoff time. While, on the side of the fans, we may not see it immediately after a specific issue that may cause controversy, the NHL definitely disciplines their referees and punishes them by taking away their playoff appearances.

Nevertheless, I have always been an advocate of transparency when it comes to evaluating officials. It’s clear that when things go awry for fans of a certain team, they are quick to put the blame squarely on the shoulders of a Lee or an Auger before they look at the deficiencies of their own team, and one way to maybe weather that storm would be for referees to be openly and publicly judged, just like the players are when they make a questionable hit or an obscene gesture.

While the best referees usually don’t make headlines and are frankly the ones that most fans can’t distinguish from one another, a more public view into what goes into evaluating an official really wouldn’t hurt anyone, and it might allow fans to look at themselves and their own teams before brushing it off as bad officiating.

Two particular games that caught my eye this past Saturday are perfect examples of what’s wrong with the system:

Washington Capitals vs. Nashville Predators
While a quick glance at the scoresheet would make you wonder why this game would even make the list, if you were around twitter on Saturday night, and follow a few of the higher-profile Caps fans, then you would know exactly what I mean.

In the end, the Caps would not only even up the number of calls on each side at six a piece, but they would end up capitalizing on an overtime powerplay to win the game. But early in the game, the caps would take five penalties in a row, including two tripping calls, two hooking calls, and a slash against Alex Ovechkin. While the Preds would NOT be able to score on any of the powerplays, including a 5-on-3 at the end of the 1st, fans were quick to blame the seemingly one-sided officiating on the 0-2 deficit their team faces halfway through the second.

Not only were the complaints petty and useless, considering the Caps still ended up winning the game, by taking advantage of the officiating, of all things, it really doesn’t take several viewings of the game to figure out why the Capitals struggled early. I’ll leave the analysis to the Caps and Preds bloggers of the net, but this was far from a one-sided game, in terms of officiating.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers
In this game, the Philadelphia Flyers clearly lost a very one-sided 5-1 game due to penalties. TCL’s Mark Trible is smart enough to look at the indiscipline of his own team before blaming the officials, but the same can’t be said about the Flyers’ captain, Mike Richards. In a video that can be viewed in Trible’s blog, Richards seemed to be quick to blame the loss on the Pens being soft on their skates before looking at all the blatant penalties his own team took.

And the list of penalties the Flyers took is pretty varied: two cross-checks, interference, roughing, hooking, tripping, slashing, puck-over-glass, and even a double-minor high stick. There’s no one to blame for this loss other than the Flyers themselves. And while I can’t speak for how Flyers fans feel in this case, when you lose by four goals, and the other team still takes 19 minutes of penalties to your 25, there really isn’t much to a referee argument.

In this particular game, the Pens scored a goal 5-on-5, 4-on-4, on a 5-on-4 powerplay, on a 5-on-3 powerplay, and even shorthanded. Simply put, it didn’t how many players the Pens were up or down, on this night, they were going to score, and the Flyers would come out flat footed.

So what does this all mean? Are there cases where the referees are to blame for a loss? Of course there are, as evidenced by last year’s Auger-Burrows incident, as well as the lack of playoff experience for some veteran NHL referees, Auger included.

There are definitely questionable calls in the NHL, probably nearly every night. Referees are human and they’re bound to make mistakes, and with no review protocol for penalties and infractions, there are bound to be a few non-calls a week, at the very least. Moreover, players are starting to learn that staying down after a hit or falling quicker on a trip or even a high stick might up the chances of a powerplay.

The NHL missed a good opportunity this past summer to review their referee protocols when the Collective Bargaining Agreement for referees expired. While it didn't help that both sides had to scramble to get a deal into place before the start of the season, an open CBA could have allowed the league to ensure that something like Auger vs. Burrows or Chris Lee vs. The Island of Montreal wouldn't happen this season, or would be limited compared to years passed.

The sport could only benefit from a more transparent system of reviewing calls and evaluating their performance of the referees.The NFL’s equivalent to league disciplinarian Colin Campbell is very quick to explain non-calls or missed calls during and after games. He doesn’t hide behind bulletproof glass in a building in New York or Toronto. The NFL understands that the lifeblood of their sport is the fans, and their reactions will steer the ship that is the sport as the years progress. Especially with the emergence of the internet as a tool for immediate discussion and instant access to stats, news, videos, and anything else fans can get their hands on. The NHL has started to embrace this medium, through their website as well as social media, but they still refuse to expand the notion of using the internet to their advantage to inform fans of how they deal with their referees, and the calls they may or may not make.

But it’s not only on the league. Naturally, there are many issues on the side of the NHL and their referees that need to be dealt with. But it’s become way too easy to blame the refereeing in the league for a team’s deficiencies. Teams have bad nights sometimes, and based on their style of play, they might go to the box more often than others.

The Montreal Canadiens are a relatively small team that don’t win too many faceoffs. The result? They resort to chasing the puck and using their sticks instead of the bodies to gain an advantage, and it results in a steady stream of players going to the box for stupid calls. Conversely, the Philadelphia Flyers are the exact opposite. Big, physical roughhousers that panic when they don’t have puck position and resort to cross checking and roughing in order to regain the advantage.

Fans are going to support their team no matter what, and players are going to look to make excuses for their misdeeds. But if everyone laid off the referees once in a while and looked at their own team’s problems, the league just might become a better place.

But of course, this definitely does not mean that the referees don’t need to be scrutinized. These are supposed to be the best referees in the sport, and they’re supposed to be impartial and fair. Amendments definitely need to be made to the way the league handles its referees. But once in a while, they do deserve some slack. And through two weeks of NHL action, the refereeing in the NHL really hasn't been all that bad, considering the increasingly difficult task of judging hits to the head, shoulder, or wherever else.

George prax