Saturday, October 20, 2007

NHL Officiating: Let 'Em Play

NHL logoGrowing up in the frigid wasteland known as Winnipeg, a common occurrence to alleviate the boredom was for someone in our group of friends to pull an outrageous stunt. In the process he would provide some entertainment for the others, create instant local legends to be re-told and embellished and gain the approval of his peers.

One such malleable sort would regularly take out one of the family cars when left at home alone. The rest of the lads would pile in, high on the coming adventure and thrilled at how easily they had manipulated the situation.

A quick ride to the outskirts of town and open fields so as to avoid detection from the police (we were well under the legal driving age) and the fun would begin. Everyone would get a chance to hammer the car into the ground. Hard turns that destroyed the alignment, grinding the gears at will and a competition to see who could drive the fastest and straightest in reverse without fishtailing.

It was all light-hearted fun done with the utmost of respect for the owners of the car. The individual who facilitated the free driving lessons no doubt assumed that because his parents implicitly trusted him with the run of the house, they also accepted his wisdom regarding whether to take the family car for a joy-ride. However, perhaps he did experience a shred of doubt about what we were doing.

Though he would have happily burned down the family house if he knew it would bring a long stretch of notoriety amongst his mates, Mr. Responsibility engaged in a desperate and pathetic bit of compensation for his misdeeds. As we careened around the field, he made certain to use the turn signal when he was at the wheel.

Yes, as he mashed the pedal to the floor and cut a swath through the waist-high wild grass, he made sure to indicate which way he was going to swerve. I believe he clicked on the right blinker just before he slammed into a copse of saplings and medium-sized trees, clear-cutting a path until coming to a rest against the one tree that wouldn't give way. The absurdity of his misplaced diligence ramped up our yelping, guffawing and back-slapping ever further.

It makes sense though. No, not the joyriding but the use of turn signals regardless of what situation you're in. It cuts out the need to waste mental energy and instead turns it into an ingrained habit that contributes to safety on the roads.  The same mentality applies to other situations as well.

***

I was listening to a recent podcast of Leafs Lunch in which the host Brian Duff was discussing the state of officiating in the NHL with former Leafs' assistant GM Bill Watters, who always sits in on the first half of the show.

Watters went off on one of his rants in which he lamented the new standard of reffing that has been evident in the NHL for the past few seasons. Since the league returned after the lockout in 2003-04, there has been a far stricter and more uniformed enforcement of all penalties, especially the type that fall under the category of "obstruction."

The result has been a better flow to the game and the inevitable whining from those who can't accept change. Watters' main point in criticizing the state of NHL reffing is that calls are not made with the consideration of "whether or not the penalty directly affects the game." Duff was left momentarily speechless before responding that the specific actions of the players in question and the subsequent non-call (from the Leafs/Panthers match-up on Thursday) of course affected the game.

It was a glaring example of poor officiating because calls in general have been more consistent since the changes. It stood out for that reason. Allowing too much leeway to referees means that calling penalties becomes far too subjective. Within such a free flowing, fast moving sport as NHL hockey, to require that refs determine whether or not an infraction affects the game, introduces far too much inconsistency.

The result would be a return to the days when certain refs carried reputations for how they officiated (which they still do but to a lesser degree.) And a shifting standard depending on what stage of the game the penalty takes place and at what part of the season the game occurs.

As with any debate where two options are being discussed, it comes down to which type of fallout comes with either choice and which is less detrimental. I'll take the situation as it exists today where there may be some poxy calls but they are all being made and a more entertaining game is the result. As opposed to having players unsure, pushing the envelope to see what they can get away with and the inevitable increase in officiating controversies.

You don't hear the requisite euphemism these days, the one that used to accompany situations where the officiating in a game had broken down completely, "They're really letting them play tonight..." Oddly enough, that same description could be used for the state of affairs today and be far more applicable.

It's much easier to have consistency when the only issue at hand is whether the infraction took place, not the more difficult to determine qualifier that Watters talked about. Sorry Watters, you lose this argument hands down.

The teams that can't get their heads around the fact that this is the way it's going to be will continue to take penalties and be rightfully labeled as undisciplined. In the meantime, NHL refs can continue devoting their energy to calling penalties by the book instead of carrying on an internal dialogue with themselves about if it's the appropriate time or situation. Just as I'm sure my long lost mate is still dutifully using that turn signal regardless of whether he's on a crowded city street or bashing through a desolated field in an off-road vehicle.

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