The solution may seem counter-intuitive but it’s there: Give the referees the power they once had to officiate the game.
When in doubt, blame the ref.
It’s a system as old as the games we watch. Players, coaches, fans, media critics and even league officials get into the act and the only rule is the referee is always wrong in the eyes of someone, somewhere.
And the number of eyes on the ref has multiplied exponentially in the age of replay review — reviews that are, in my humble opinion, wrecking the entire experience.
Even with the mind-numbing review delays, the NHL is enduring a post-season nightmare, a litany of gaffes. When league execs are taking pot-shots at their own referees, you have the very definition of a mess.
Key goals that should count are disallowed. Goals that should be waved off are allowed. Phantom penalties are called, real penalties are missed. Games are decided not by the players on the ice but by referees and anonymous war-room geeks.
What to do, what to do?
The solution may seem counter-intuitive but it’s there: Give the referees the power they once had to officiate the game. There was a time, before the two-referee system and that utterly inept war room in Toronto, when a single referee ran the game he officiated. There were mistakes but on balance, it worked — just as soccer somehow gets by with a single ref who has to keep an eye on a vast pitch and 22 players.
Add the second referee and replay review and almost everyone agrees: on-ice officiating during the playoffs has never been worse. The problem is that in the NHL, everyone is in charge — and no one.
Anyone who has ever worked in any sort of job knows that someone has to be in charge. Instead, NHL referees are subject to being overruled by the war room and if they aren’t overruled, they are second-guessed from on high, by everyone from Colin Campbell to unnamed executives who are about as high as you can get on the food chain.
The solution is to give absolute authority over each game to the professionals whose job it is to get it right: the referees.
They have the training. They have the experience. If they weren’t damned good at it, they wouldn’t be where they are. Yes, they miss calls. But the solution is to give them more power, not less.
In the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball, referees and umpires conduct the reviews — although baseball now gives the final authority to an umpire at the Replay Command Center in New York. A mistake, in my view, but not as extreme as the role of the war room in hockey.
The NBA reviews a number of specific situations but on-court referees conduct the reviews, as they should. The NFL system is more like baseball’s, with a senior designated member of the officiating department making the final decision and getting it wrong nearly as often as the NHL.
More than any other sport, the NHL has chipped away at the authority of its referees. It’s nearing the point they’re simply out there to drop pucks, break up fights and announce the decisions of the war room, reducing the referees to the status of glorified linesmen.
If we’re going to keep replay reviews (and I’m afraid no league will have the guts to ban the whole thing) the war room should have only one purpose — to back up the on-ice officials and to give them the support they need. When the referee wants a certain angle, the war room provides it. The technocrats can weigh in with an opinion but the ultimate decision rests with the referee.
There is one simple goal: to get it right. The senior referee is in charge, with help from the junior referee and the linesmen. If he feels that he needs to look at what may have been a hand pass to a teammate, he skates to the sideline and reviews the play. The war room is there only to provide him with every possible angle.
Here’s the key: If you’re going to have replay review at all, then any play is reviewable IF the head referee decides to review it. No need to spell out what can or cannot be reviewed — if the referee thinks a penalty or a disallowed goal or a hand pass deserves a review, he has the power to review it, period. No more falling back on the excuse that the play can’t be reviewed.
The NHL, as we have seen, can’t provide for every contingency in the rulebook, so we have the absurd situation in which a goal can be waved off if an onrushing forward was a millimetre offside — but the ref can’t take a second look at a hand pass to a teammate that proved to be decisive. The excuse is always the same: league officials shrug, say the play isn’t reviewable and that’s it. Case closed.
The only solution is to put control of the game back in the hands of the league’s referees. They’re on the ice, their butts are on the line.
Then put a gag order on the shabby second-guessing from the head office. After all, they’re the ones who created an unworkable system in the first place.