Hot Topic

The officiating has been the talk of the town. A couple of the less vulgar entries are here and here.

I've been amassing some thoughts lately to put into one monolithic gripe about the officiating. And, speak of the devil, Tom B himself dropped by for a visit.

The way the season was supposed to work goes something like this: 1) There is a firm crackdown early, 2) there are lots o’ penalties, 3) eventually the players 'get it,' 4) the game opens up without the cursed obstruction, and 5) we all get to see the best playoffs since Gretzky was an Oiler. That isn't how it has panned out. The Refs are now deciding playoff games instead of regular season games, and - get this - the penalty rate is even higher in the playoffs than the regular season. Something has gone horribly wrong.

When I watching the games, I'm sick of glancing around my TV screen to see if a ref has a hand in the air every time a player throws a hit, attempts a pokecheck, or even emerges from a corner with the puck. I'm sick of the elevated status of the power play goal in deciding games. I'm especially sick of 5-on-3 goals. If you dislike the shootout because it's of it's disconnect from the actual game winning ability of a team, you must have a similar twinge regarding the PPs.

There is a groundswell of opposition to this standard in the playoffs. The NHL officials webpage is currently down (DOS attacks? Millions of hits by would-be stalkers?). However, there is still a lot of support for the way the refs are 'staying the course.' This poll at THN shows 75% of respondents said the officiating standard is not too strict. So I'm going to take an approach here to help that majority see it my way (without coming across as a curmudgeon, I hope).


In the stats world, when evaluating a test (in this case, a referee's judgment of a penalty) there are two basic types of errors:

False positives: This would be when a penalty is called that should not have been called, i.e. a player falls accidentally and the ref nabs the nearest opponent. Falling for dives would fall under this category. When a penalty is replayed in slow motion, you can usually see a legitimate penalty. For this reason I think this rate is relatively low, although higher than in years past because of the dives.

False negatives: This is when an infraction occurs, but is not penalized. i.e. the officials missed it.
For further background, a 'positive' would be a penalty properly called. A 'negative' would be a non-penalty properly called.

Arguments in favour of the crackdown usually cite the low rate of false positives. The penalties called are usually legit. The player was doing something naughty - he sits in the box.
For me, the kicker is the false negative rate. I don't believe for a second that a game that featured 10 hook/hold/interference penalty calls had only 10 hook/hold/interference incidents.

Watching the game at full speed, it is very difficult to pick false negatives out. The Koivu injury is a prime example. If they can miss that, just imagine how many little things they miss.

The players aren't stupid. No one is going to confuse a jock with a rocket surgeon, but I refuse to believe they're too stupid to know what a hook/hold is, or that they're too dumb to realize that penalties cost their team games. So why do they do it?

The fact that players continue to take penalties tells me that the false negative rate is very high, that they usually get away with it. If they didn't, they would have adjusted by now. Because they get away with so much, the players have to cheat or else be at a competitive disadvantage.

The pro-crackdown observers say they would be better off playing a perfectly clean game. I disagree. If the opposition can get away with 90% of these little infractions, your 'perfectly clean game' will get you run out of the rink.

The result: both teams walk a tightrope, trying to play as competitively as the standard du jour will allow, while the refs penalize what they can catch, trying to prove to everyone they're calling it tight. The result is an unpredictable mess of power plays.

If the crackdown was perfect and every little incident correctly called, the players would have made the adjustment by now. Hell, they would have made it after a handful of games. The fact is, this game is impossible to officiate perfectly. Too many things happen too fast for human beings to observe, analyze and evaluate - especially when those officials are required to skate more than the players. You can't blame the refs. They have an impossible job, and they do it better than anyone else could.


Here's the Oxford dictionary definition of the word "standard," in the context of the NHL's officiating "standard:"

"something used as a measure, norm, or model in comparative evaluations."

Clearly, the use of the word, as applied to NHL officiating, is richly slathered with irony.

To start, here's mudcrutch:

"I guess obstruction and interference are ok if they're setting up offensive chances."
Yes! Bingo! There is a different standard, depending on which end of the rink you're in. When you're attacking, you can set picks. When defending, that's called interference. All in the interests of increasing scoring, because scoring is what we tune in to see.

I really think this, along with the icing rule, is causing the game to drift toward a basketball-style half-court game where attackers can handle puck at will until they take a shot. It is becoming increasingly difficult for defenders to legally strip the puck. It seems like we've seen more long possessions in the offensive zone, and not as many odd man rushes as promised. Of course, this is purely subjective (just as subjective as any ref's interference call).

So, will the next stop on the Bettman bus be the introduction of a shot clock? I'm only half joking - you read it here first, folks.

There is also a different standard, depending on who is making the calls. Which brings me to...


Tom B put up a post in February discussing the criteria for defining a sport. Of course, hockey made the grade while things like curling, figure skating, auto racing etc. were debatable.

One of the chief requirements for the 'sport' categorization was clearly defined criteria for determining winners. In the 100m dash, the athlete crossing the finish line first wins. It doesn't get any clearer than that; the 100m dash is a sport. Figure skating, however, relies on the subjectivity of human judges to declare winners. Therefore, it is not a sport. In hockey, the winner is the team with the most points on the scoreboard at the end of the night. Clear-cut, right?

In this year's playoff hockey, 45% of all goals have been scored on the PP. [Update: that 45% includes SHGs. Thanks PSH.] The PPs depend on the subjectivity of human judges. Judges such as Dan "The French Judge" Marouelli. Hmmm.

We're not quite in figure skating or diving territory (yet), but it seems we're firmly into moguls skiing range, where half the evaluation of the athletes depends on their finishing time and the other half depends on the judges' scoring of their 'tricks.' Do we really want to go further down this road?


I must qualify my agreement with Tom B. Unlike Tom, I mostly like what has happened to 5-on-5 hockey. We are getting more back-and-forth games with teams trading rushes and chances. Unfortunately, the 5-on-5 is becoming irrelevant. The PPs decide the game, and the erratic calls decide the PPs.

It's nice to see that I'm in agreement with Scotty Bowman (from Kukla's Korner).

So, what's the answer? I have no idea. Would slowing the game down help? People loved the 80s, with it's out-of-shape players and two-minute shifts. Maybe shorten the benches? I dunno.

I really think a more moderate approach will be seen as the playoffs progress (prime example in CAR-MTL Game 4 tonight), but it's already too late to save round 1 which is invariably the best hockey of the year, every year. And that is unfortunate.


I have notes from Game 4 but I'm sleepy. Maybe tomorrow.


Blogger The Puck Stops Here said...

Just to be clear. Going into last night's games 45% of the goals were special teams goals - not only power play goals - this includes shorthanded goals.

4/29/2006 1:30 p.m.  
Blogger Jeff J said...

Ah, thanks!

4/29/2006 4:04 p.m.  
Anonymous The Rage said...

I really believe the solution is four on four hockey. Wide open, a game of speed and hitting, without the need to call constant penalties. We could even make overtime 3 on 3 and that would largely eliminate the shoot-out. However, it is a major change, and I think progress towards it would be step wise if it happens (there's already rumours about the playoffs going to four on four during OT, so I might not be just dreaming).

4/30/2006 9:21 p.m.  
Blogger Jeff J said...

I agree completely that the size and speed of today's players have effectively shrunk the rink. 4-on-4 has more flow, to be sure, but there's something about dropping a player from the ice that seems awfully drastic. Is it still the same game if you do that?

5/01/2006 12:01 p.m.  
Anonymous The Rage said...

Yeah, I completely understand your point and it's my one reservation. However, we already have four on four during the regular season, and if we continue a trend of gradual change (allow four on four for playoff OT, then four on four during fighting majors etc.) then I think the game could be said to be evolving rather than changing into something different. It may just be semantics, but gradual change would possiblely work and feel right whereas darastic change would cause the problem you mentioned.

5/01/2006 3:23 p.m.  
Anonymous The Rage said...

Just to add to the above: the ultimate problem for the NHL is that it is in weaker teams' best interest to play as defensively as possible (to increase the role of random chance). The NHL can not change that through officating (unless they outlaw certain defensive practices, which would be plain akward).

5/01/2006 3:27 p.m.  

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