The NHL has a problem with their refereeing.
It runs throughout the league, through both the regular season and playoffs, and it is eroding both the quality of the game itself and the faith of hockey fans.
I believe it is a crisis of the league’s own doing and something that neither Gary Bettman, the Board of Governors nor the fans themselves have the stomach to fix.
One major aspect of the NHL’s organizational structure that, in my opinion, creates an unhealthy influence on the execution and standard of officiating is the history and role played by Colin Campbell within the league.
My reasoning for this is based on the following: the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NHL Officials includes a standard mid-season performance appraisal by the Director of Officiating or his designee. The current Director of Officiating is Stephen Walkom who reports directly to Campbell (nhl org structure is here).
In 2010 a series of emails sent by Campbell during his time as NHL disciplinarian, uncovered and released by Tyler Dellow, relating to part of an unlawful dismissal lawsuit brought forth by former referee Dean Warren revealed Campbell’s attitude towards player safety – perhaps best described as being crudely draconian. Some of those emails were sent directly to Walkom to protest Warren’s assessing of a high-sticking penalty to Campbell’s son in an NHL game.
The league has asserted that Campbell recuses himself during any discussion involving his son, however that statement stands in direct contrast to the email evidence that even if he did remove himself from official discussion Campbell showed no reservation in engaging the head of officiating on the matter directly.
Having laid out past behaviour and responsibilities of those involved, let’s look at this another way.
Referees receive mid-season performance appraisals (page 9-10 of the link) from their boss who answers directly to a man who has, in the past, attempted to interfere with officiating decisions involving his son and who has suggested that players injured by penalized actions either deserved it or were embellishing and who has been the target of a failed court case alleging the NHL had fired a referee without due cause.
Regardless of whether Colin Campbell is either good or bad at his job, calling this a corruption of process would be an understatement.
From the Board of Governors to the On-Ice Officials
Another symptom of the problem is that the NHL uses their rule book and officials as a tool to enact a measure of parity in the games by way of providing powerplay opportunities at as close to an even rate as possible regardless of the infractions that are committed by either or both teams.
I believe this is, in part, due to the Board of Governors, whose responsibilities includes the review and approval of all rule changes and as such extends to the officials and their mandate. There is, I suspect, an effort either consciously or unconsciously, to level the proverbial playing field between those teams with greater skill and those without. So that an owner with a roster full of Grant Shaws isn’t embarrassed when playing against a team with Taylor Hall or Johnny Gaudreau.
This is a fundamentally flawed philosophy but one that isn’t unexpected for an organizational structure like the NHL, which is closer to a cartel than a corporate body.
The league has shown repeatedly that their concept of what fans want for entertainment doesn’t always align with what fans themselves have demanded.
This results in some teams committing more infractions, some egregious, as part of a strategy to intimidate the opposition, limit their ability to compete fairly, or in some cases even cause injury in the knowledge that they will still only be penalized at a rate that aligns more closely to the number of infractions their opposition commits.
In other words, Team A decides to play more aggressively, committing 60 infractions in a game (something not uncommon in my experience) versus their opponent’s, Team B’s, 30, and yet both teams are penalized three times in the game. So Team A has committed twice as many infractions yet been penalized as often as Team B who have, as a result, also lost a competitive advantage to their opponent because of this behaviour.
The NHL might look at the game sheet and say that both teams were penalized equally and therefore the officials and rules are being applied consistently and without prejudice or favour. Yet an examination of the game itself and the play of both teams would show the exact opposite.
So the NHL could be speaking sincerely when they say that they apply the rules evenly and fairly in the game today, but it is sincerity which comes from a source that is inherently tainted with deliberate bias.
The Officiating Review
I have arrived at this opinion after spending two and a half seasons carefully reviewing a random sampling of games and, using the NHL rulebook as a guide, logging every infraction both called and uncalled made by both teams throughout.
The sample sizes included –
- in 2015-2016 the review of 17 games totalling 816 infractions, called and uncalled
- in 2016-2017 the review of 41 games totalling 2196 infractions, called and uncalled
- in 2017-2018 the review of 18 games totalling 781 infractions, called and uncalled
Overall, 76 NHL games were reviewed involving nearly every team in the league, logging 3793 infractions both called and uncalled.
In my review I recorded the type of infraction categorized either as a physical or technical foul, the player committing the foul, the time of the foul, and assigned a number value between 0 and 3 to record the severity, 0 being a phantom call, 1 being weak, 2 fair and 3 being blatant or egregious.
Standard time to review games was between 3.5 and 4 hours per game.
What I found was that the NHL officials, on average, call about 17% of the total infractions committed, a percentage that I refer to as Rate of Call or RoC.
That means they let approximately 83% of the penalties that could be called go.
The frequency of an infraction being called increased with the severity but even then it was only from a low point of 4% on the type 1 infractions (weak calls that the game is probably better off ignoring) to 14% for type 2 (perhaps unintentional, such as an accidental trip or inadvertent high-stick) to 28% for type 3 (think Nugent-Hopkins pulling an opponent’s stick out of his visor).
That means that the highest level of efficiency the officials displayed in the manner of calling a penalty was just under 3 out of every 10 times for the most obvious or severe infractions.
There was no demonstrated sustained correlation in the rise of RoC if the infraction was either technical or physical.
Below you will see a series of charts illustrating the gap between the calls that were made (red) vs the uncalled infractions I recorded (blue).
As this was originally a study focused on the RoC for the Oilers relative to the rest of the league, I have separated their charts from the NHL data which I used as a control group. However, by the end of this season’s sampling the overlap was becoming clear enough that the difference in RoC between the Oilers and the rest of the NHL was relatively small when viewed in the context of what appears to be a wider issue.
The discrepancy between what could have been called as an infraction relative to what was called is glaring and consistent enough across the league that a tendency becomes noticeable almost immediately.
Take for instance slashing. You’ll recall that the league announced earlier this season that they were going to crack down on slashes, especially to the hands and arms. The data I collected on this season ran from October to December, the peak time that this crackdown was supposed to be running. Yet the instance of slashing appears unchanged from previous seasons nor does there appear to be any change in how often it was penalized.
Earlier I had mentioned that I believe the NHL directs their officials to employ the rule book with the intent of inserting a measure of parity to each game. I also believe they view the rule book not as a tool with which to maintain the integrity of the game but rather as a mechanism of entertainment, namely the powerplay.
But how to test this theory?
For this I looked at the records for four teams from last year: the Calgary Flames, Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes and Chicago Blackhawks. They were selected as two of the most and two of the least penalized teams in the league last season and one from each of the four divisions.
The Flames and Lightning were among the most penalized teams in the league in 2016-2017, averaging 11:39 and 10:40 minutes per game on the penalty kill. The Hurricanes and Blackhawks were among the least penalized, averaging 5:48 and 7:07 minutes on the penalty kill, respectively. The Flames racked up 956 penalty minutes, according the NHL.com, while the Hurricanes were at the other end of the spectrum in amassing only 476 penalty minutes.
If we subtract offsetting penalties such as fighting majors or game misconducts, the Flames drop from 956 to 726 penalty minutes, the Lightning from 875 to 670, the Blackhawks from 584 to 484 and the Hurricanes from 476 to 451. The lead held by the Flames over the Hurricanes is still substantial in total penalty minutes.
However, in 57% of their games the Flames were within 1 powerplay opportunity awarded versus their opponent. The Lightning were within 1 PP chance in 67% of their games, as were the Blackhawks. The Hurricanes, the Lady Byng of NHL teams last season were within 1 PP opportunity in 63% of their games.
Put another way, the difference in the average numbers of penalties per game between Calgary and Carolina last season was almost 2 full powerplays per game (4.6 to 2.7). That is a significant difference and it seems unlikely that such a wide gap would occur while at the same time those two teams would play more than half of their respective games without they or their opponent consistently holding an advantage in power play opportunities.
How is it that a team, the Flames, which nearly doubled another, the Hurricanes, in total penalty minutes accrued in a season can have only a 6% difference in the number of games (working out to about 5 games per season) they have played where the penalty differential is within 1? Is 5 games out of 82 a statistically significant sample? Probably not, but at this level of available data I think it should at least be a red flag.
I look at this data and am left wondering the following:
Surely a team like the Hurricanes, who rarely committed infractions last season, would receive a greater share of PP opportunities when playing against an opponent who had a higher overall number of penalty minutes per game?
Did the Flames only ever amass their league-leading penalty minutes against other belligerent teams? That seems unlikely as so few teams could match them for penalty minutes and teams only face each other between 2 and 5 times a season.
And even if this was so, if the Flames held occasional donnybrooks against other dirty teams that inflated their penalty minutes to such an extent, are we to believe that the exact same thing happened with the Lightning? Or that the exact opposite happened with the Hurricanes and Blackhawks?
The only reasonable conclusion at this time is that the officials called the game in a way that equalizes opportunities for the man-advantage rather than prioritizing enforcement of the league’s own written standard of play.
What reason could the officials have for doing so?
None I can see save a desire to provide both teams equal opportunities more or less regardless of their on-ice behaviour. There is very little incentive for the officials to adopt such a tactic. Therefore it seems a logical step to suggest that it is under the leadership of the league by which the referees call the game thus.
But what proof?
My reasoning in this is related to an examination of the number of times in a season that a given team would play in a game where the penalty differential between them and their opponent was greater than 1. In other words, how many times in a year would a team play a game where either they or their opponent have 2 or more powerplay opportunities compared to their opposition?
Further to this I looked at those same four teams and the prevalence of penalty differential throughout their 2016-2017 season, taking note of the games in which they played where one or the other team was awarded a share of PP opportunities greater than 1 over their opponent.
Curiously enough, how often a game was played where one team or the other had more than 1 PP opportunity more than their opposition seemed to dwindle as the season went on, as you’ll see in the chart below. The lines begin to converge closer to each other as the season progresses, showing that teams more often had the same number of powerplay opportunities relative to their opponent later in the season than at the beginning.
Now, it could be that some teams begin to tighten up their games as they progress through the season, reducing sloppy play and becoming more disciplined, but two of these teams made the playoffs and two did not so the argument that all four are necessarily practicing sound, consistent hockey doesn’t hold up. It is highly unlikely that all four teams, from two different ends of the penalty minute spectrum, would have all collectively become more disciplined exactly as the season wore on.
This information seems to support the longstanding opinion that the NHL sets out the rules at the beginning of the season and then gradually relaxes their standards until the end of the year when it seems the penalties are handed out without any consistency at all.
While this data acts as an indicator, I believe a larger, longer investigation of this kind is in order.
You Mentioned the Fans
At the beginning of this article I said that the fans may not have the stomach to fix this problem. What did I mean by that?
Over the years I have noticed that fans will often say they want the rule book to be called as is, every infraction receiving the appropriate penalty. I understand this entirely and do, to some extent, agree.
However, I have also noticed fans, sometimes the same as those alluded to, tweet out in-game about the substance of a penalty call.
Hockey is a contact sport played at high speed with very large athletes carrying curved sticks. Stuff is going to happen. The NHL and it’s officials let far too much go but having this review I wonder how many fans would sit through any game that involved upwards of 20 penalties being handed out to each side.
Enforcement must take place within a spectrum and while the game itself is, in my opinion, not being well-served by the NHL’s stewardship I don’t believe that a radical swing to the other end of the spectrum would necessarily improve it either.
To this end, I return to the idea of the Rate of Call. 100% is impossible and 17%, where we currently sit, is unsustainable given the mood of fans right now. Somewhere in between is the best scenario, a level of enforcement that recognizes hockey for what it is, a contact sport built around size, speed and skill, while also enforcing the rules to the extent that it encourages the best of those same traits to shine and provide a more entertaining product rather than the managed, manufactured appearance of parity it is today.
I remain skeptical in general about the fans’ ability to stomach that kind of crackdown when it includes their own team’s players being called.
To Sum It All Up
In conclusion, I believe that there is a disconnect between the NHL’s governing body and the fans when it comes to the idea of how to referee a game. The fans assume, as most people would, that the rules are meant to be enforced consistently, and while they may understand that sometimes the state of a game may impact a referee’s willingness to make a call, be it late in a tie game or into overtime, there is a general expectation that an infraction, especially an egregious one, will be met with the requisite penalty, regardless of who committed it and what the score is.
The NHL, on the other hand, sees the rule book as another tool at its disposal in an effort to make every game exciting and close, to narrow the difference between teams to a smallest possible margin and to ensure that fans of both teams feel they had a chance to win a game on any given night.
I’m not saying that the NHL’s point of view is actually reasonable or sane, just that I think this is what they tell themselves.
In the case of Colin Campbell, he appears to view the game through a lens distorted by machismo and myopic ego which is then translated on down to the effective level of the in-game officials whose job it is to attempt to interpret and execute the mandate they’ve been given.
What happens as an end result, though, is that fans see the greatest stars in the game being hooked, held, interfered with, slashed, cross-checked, boarded, tripped and slew-footed with what appears to be general impunity. It lowers the level of competition to the point where the Matt Beleskeys of the NHL can skate with the Connor McDavids and it is marketed and sold to NHL fans as passing for exciting hockey despite risking catastrophic injury to players time and time again.
In the end, everything I recorded and observed has only led me to agree with Mario Lemieux’s old statement that the NHL is a garage league.
Here is a link to all of the accumulated data from the past three seasons. Feel free to review or process it however you like.
I’ll be posting findings specific to the Oilers later. Thanks for reading.