NHL officiating detracts from the product
BEYOND THE LINES
Any time officials are the main topic of conversation after an athletic event, it’s not a good look for the sport. Unfortunately, that was the case throughout the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Stanley Cup is the oldest trophy in team sports and arguably the toughest to win. The NHL playoffs are a two-month marathon, as much a demonstration of endurance and will as skill. Perhaps more than in any other sport, how referees officiate the games – calls and non-calls alike - can determine the outcome of a game or a series, as we saw in this year’s playoffs.
Among the egregious examples was a missed hand pass by the San Jose Sharks leading to a game three win against the St. Louis Blues, and an unwarranted five-minute penalty against the Las Vegas Knights that handed the Sharks a game seven win in the opening round of the playoffs.
One of the most obvious gaffes occurred in game five of the finals between the Boston Bruins and the Blues. With the series knotted at two games apiece, and the Blues leading 1-0 midway through the third period, St. Louis’ Tyler Bozak tripped Bruins C Noel Acciari and flipped him on his back. Play continued and Blues RW David Perron scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal.
Everyone in the building, including Bozak who admitted guilt by immediately pleading his case to the referee, thought it was a penalty. But no call was made, even though the trip occurred in plain sight of two officials. The Bozak trip was merely one of several non-calls during the game, which included headshots on the Bruins’ Marcus Johansson and Torey Krug and an obvious hold of Krug by the Blues’ Oskar Sundqvist.
While the Bruins were able to win game six in St. Louis, the Blues returned the favor by beating Boston in game seven, winning their first Stanley Cup.
Admittedly, NHL referees have a nearly impossible task: make split-second decisions during a game where the action is non-stop, end to end for the entire game. The game has gotten so fast, even the best officials have difficulty keeping up with the action. But that’s not the only reason for the game-deciding non-calls in the playoffs. There seems to be a conscious effort on the part of officials – apparently at the direction of the league - to allow physical play to go unpunished. That’s a mistake.
There should be more consistency in enforcing the rules from the regular season to the playoffs and from game to game throughout the playoffs. Inconsistency costs teams money and undermines the credibility of the sport.
In fairness to the league, with the benefit of instant replay they assessed several one-game suspensions on players who weren’t called for penalties during the games. But that was too little too late.
The NHL cannot allow lax enforcement of the rules or officials’ mistakes to determine the outcome of games, much less the winner of the Stanley Cup. Teams, players and fans are entitled to better than that.
Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at email@example.com.