When is a penalty in sports not a penalty?
Apparently the answer is when it’s playoff time in the National Hockey League.
If there is a more inconsistently officiated sport in the world than hockey, it would indeed be a mess to watch.
Granted there are officiating issues in many sports; the strike zone in baseball varying from umpire to umpire being an example. But at least within the context of a game an umpire tends to call the balls and strikes the same in the ninth inning as he did in the first.
In the NHL, the consistency of calls is nonexistent.
What might be called in the first period may not be in the third because hockey clings to ridiculous idioms about not having officials decide the game, and letting players play the game. Well folks if slashing, roughing and interference are part of letting players play, why are they infractions at all?
And if we don’t want officials deciding the game, why not pull the men in stripes off the ice in the third period? Frankly, there have been times in this year’s NHL playoffs they might as well have been in the dressing room.
Repeatedly, there are instances where obvious infractions are ignored even though replay will show a referee looking directly at the play as it unfolded.
There have been instances in these playoffs where referees have not issued a penalty, but the NHL has later imposed a suspension on a player for an egregious foul. How are the officials not in some way reprimanded for missing the penalty?
There was a time officials were let off the hook because penalties happened ‘behind the play’, which of course led to the addition of a second referee who misses calls in lockstep with their partner.
Of course if a coach were to criticize the official for missing calls he would likely get a fine, which of course leaves one wondering how officials are dealt with in terms of missing calls. One would assume their work is reviewed, and missed calls pointed out as a way to being better the next time out, but the process is clearly not helping.
There would of course seem to be a simple enough solution, call the game as the rules state. However, most calls, roughing and interference in particular which are far from black and white, leaving the decision a matter of interpretation by the referee. Too often they play ostrich with their head in the sand rather than making the correct call.
And video replay accomplishes nothing beyond slowing the game, and further muddying the waters regarding calls.
Certainly when it comes to offsides we have seen even super slow motion is insufficient to be clearly definitive on whether a micro-millimetre of a skate is on side, or offside.
When it comes to the call of goaltender interference the calls on the ice, and the video replay decisions are so scattered it defies understanding by fans who should be able to clearly grasp the rules, just as players should be able too.
It might help to have an off ice official who can make calls when the on ice refs miss things. It certainly works well in international rugby.
The NHL might opt to follow rugby by putting a microphone on the refs too so fans can hear what players are told, and how calls are handled. Of course in rugby when a yellow card sends a player off the field players almost always just turn and trot off, without the whining you see in hockey as players plead their innocence and point fingers at their opposition in what is akin to a young child’s tantrum.
But don’t expect change anytime soon. Instead of working to create an environment where players can excel based on skills, they allow stick work, roughing after whistles in front of the net, interference, and more to ramp up in the playoffs detracting from what should be the premier showing of the sport.
Of course just when you think the NHL can’t be any more minor league in terms of officiating Brad Marchant licks an opponent and there is no call for unsportsmanlike on the ice, and then the league offers up only a stern talking too.
It is hard to imagine an on-ice action that disrespects an opponent, the NHL, its fans and the sport more than Marchand, a supposed star of the game resorting to licking an opposition player.
That no disciplinary action was taken also sends a disturbing message to young players that such a disgusting action isn’t a big enough deal to warrant a penalty, let alone the extended suspension that should have come down.
Among pro leagues the NHL has always operated on the edge of the bush, but this incident takes it deep into bush league territory.