May he, who cast the first stone...
I've often been asked, after an umpteenth recurrant tirade over NHL officiating, "Well, smart guy, how would you fix it all?'
Well damnit if it wouldn't be presumptous of me to claim I can solve every question surrounding the overall disatisfaction with NHL officiating, but I think I may have something that points closer to what could be called answers.
Let me first assume myself to be in your front row seat, boots, skates, couch, and lazy boy watching the NHL game unfold.
Let me also pressume that the answers to all the following questions are a resounding "No!"
"Are you always happy with the current state of officiating in the NHL?"
"Do you always find it consistant and fair to both teams, in every situation, for three full periods?"
"Can you say without a doubt that officials always make the correct call?"
"Have you ever walked away from a game disgusted by how the outcome seemed to you, to be affected by calls or non calls, during the course of a game?"
If you answered "yes" to the fourth query only, we likely have the same frustrations in common.
I have long believed that the NHL game and it's officiating have become imcompatible - moreso since the advent of the 4 on ice officials system.
It was then that I began thinking about solutions and resolves. That was ten years back in NHL evolution.
Before I ply my ideas forth, let me please, if you will, give some devil's advocate points of view to what you will, I assure you, later argue with me on.
Officiating a hockey game is the most masochistic profession I know. While I have never been in their position to see and feel fans and coaches wrath first hand, I am not unfamiliar with it. I have delivered it from behind benches for years, instictively at times. Later even, ashamed at times, watching young teen referees leave the rink in tears. Caught between competitiveness, officials cannot win.
Imagine a job, where the better you do, the less is said. No pats on the back, just an awkward comradery scattered amongst loud booing and jeers. When you least expect it, the odd projectile is flung your way. On occasion you are confronted, questioned, chastised, and belittled above and beyond your job description.
Rare is the human skin thick enough to withstand such abuse. Yet we not only expect officials to withstand it, we expect them them to rise above it all and perform perfectly. We demand it and pay them accordingly, all the while showering them with pointed venom and abuse.
The referee or official places themself in this lose-lose scenario, usually for a love of the game. We rip their heads off in return.
The NHL official, thick skinned and mentally armoured, has been given, under all these circumstances, the daunting task of bringing order and compliance to a sport that executes itself at light speed, with changing motions, agressive behavior and with defying attitudes. Still, we demand that official to be perfect. Human, with all that is at stake, is no longer good enough!
Did I not mention that officiating had become incompatible with the sport?
While officials deal with an on ice view as the game unfolds and unravels, we are perched mostly in higher seats, whether it be in arenas or couches, examining and disecting every error made by them. From the rafters or the television camera angle, we have an honest view of what has been missed, neglected, unforeseen, and to us only, obvious.
They rarely see what we see - and that's the killer!
If you are fortunate enough to live near beautiful forestry, take a deep look into the late August woods and spy that first leaf that is changing colour. It's not easy to spot, is it? Imagine trying to spot it from across a road with vehicles passing at different speeds. It's not easy, is it? Everything is moving so quickly.
That's your puck, your high stick, that subtle hook, that sublime trip, that slash you missed with two bodies blocking your view, that elbow up high (seemingly obvious to everyone), a somewhat apparent dive - um, not sure!, that spear that has the home teams star player in agony, and that goal that everyone in the building agrees went in.
Now place yourself in an officials skates and envision those scenes again.
The official cannot rule on it, he simply could not see it. He tried, but he's a professional and will not guess at it. That would be wrong and it could set himself up for embarrassment. He looks to his cohorts for guidance on the play - his cohorts look to him, confused for a second, waiting. There is a second of second guessing.
Players on opposite teams react differently, some look away innocent and indifferent, others are enraged and in disbelief. There is no blood on the ice, thankfully, and the play moves on. Seconds later a goal is scored.
Immediatly and from all perspectives, scorn pours down from the stands, the players on the ice and the coaching staff. Your cohorts look to you again, with a mixture of understanding and disbelief themselves. You look back at them wondering why they did not make the call if they'd seen it, while trying to keep your own composure intact. You are on national televison and your superiors are watching and judging and rating your every move.
You hold a quick think tank with those cohorts but you still make the wrong call. It was up to you to decide. It nags at you. It will eat your thoughts on your off day, but...
Heck, it's get out of uniform time, catch a red eye flight, and shuffle these notions away - there's a flight to catch and all!
If any profession has this amount of on the job and outside pressures and mental stress, I'd love to see it's workman's compensation psychiatrist billings!
What an official is asked to do during an NHL contest is quite obviously, either inhuman or superhuman.
Since the implementation of the 4 officials system, it is my take that matters have gotten way worse.
While linesmen deal mainly with onside and offside calls, their job detail consists of little more. It is basically stay out of players way, make the proper calls, and do not impede the pucks progression. They do have the power to make certain calls, but will rarely do so, at the risk of embarrassing, even humiliating referees in charge, in seeing something they did or could not see.
Many of these officials calling the game share an age dynamic. Like rookies on a team, upsetting a veteran is never a career wise move. Often ego's clash. Younger officials invariably defer to that most immediate of authorities. Regardless of their ability and vision, this is the big leagues, and they conform.
Now ask yourselves those 4 questions I put to you at the top once more and consider this.
Do you still feel the same way about officiating?
Can you now understand it in a different light?
Will you watch the next hockey game with more understanding and less judgement?
It ought to be obvious by now, that the current configuration of 4 on ice officials, simply cannot work. Given that they have been dealt extra responsabilities since the lockout, it is even more unworkable or them.
There are more infractions to blow the whistle on.
They need help with it.
If I have spent so much detail analysing how it is for officials, it is because I chose to focus on what it is they fail nightly to achieve.
It's beyond their human fault.
Did I even bother to mention that NHL officials are likely the best available officials to the NHL? It ought to go without question.
My whole point is this. I ought to underline or highlight it loudly.
MY WHOLE POINT IS THIS.
An official never has the benefit of a spectators point of view. Whether it be from an arena where the larger proportion of fans sit higher, or from a living room couch where camera angles never lie - the perspective can never be quite the same.
If the NHL's thinking heads believe that the avenues to properity for the league lie primarily in a National television contract, why not begin to call the games from that same viewers standpoint.
It is not that unthinkable, that unreasonable, or that farfetched to come to terms with the idea that a hockey game can best be officiated from a higher perspective.
Doesn't God judge us from above?
Goals, the most crucial of calls, have long been decided by overhead cameras. To little or no error at that!
While it may not be a workable, overnight solution, can't penaly calls somehow be dealt with in the same way?
I've always kept all this at the back of my mind as an eventual solution to officiating woes. The time may have come to at least begin pondering it, to working out the forseen kinks.
The NHL may actually be seen as a trailblazer by adopting such a revolutionary sports officiating perspective.
Call it "The Eye In The Sky".
A multitude of overhead cameras scanning the game's every zone for infractions committed.
To enable such a cohesive and grand scheme to work beyond what fails today requires some vision, the years ahead kind!
Here's what I, humble hockey blogger, see in the officiating future.
To begin with, I see on the ice, one less official in the way of players and pucks shot in and out of zones.
I see linesmen, having only to deal with calls that are offside, onside or icings of the puck.
I see no more referees of different ages and seniority, having to get along and become compatible on the ice.
I see blame removed from on ice officials as they execute commands from upstairs.
To that end, I see less player arguements and frustrations with said officials, as their deeds have been detected and nailed by the official "in the sky."
MOST IMPORTANTLY I see fans, of both arena and TV perspectives, agreeing with such calls.
Implementing this, will of course, involve financial undertaking by the NHL owners group.
The logistics would take careful planning.
It will involve a technology enabling on ice officials to communicate via headsets with the setup above.
It will involve communication, immediate to the penalty box area once calls are made.
It will involve an investment of time, planning and patience, to convince fans that it is the way to go.
HOW I SEE IT working is something like this:
One luxury suite in each NHL arena holds the technology to view multi camera angles from all 3 zones of play - the neutral between the blue lines, and each end zone. Two camera men are assigned to each zone per period on a rotating basis. During the game they have access to every camera angle available in the setup. Each will have a view of opposite sides of the ice surface and the ability to make calls within the leagues discretion.
THEY WILL MISS NOTHING if this setup works like it ought to.
Calls will be sent down to the on ice officials who will blow the whistle when the penalized team touches the puck.
The goal judges area behind the net, long obsolete due to such calls going overhead, could now feature four coloured lights to alert officials and fans of calls. They would be red, green, amber and blue. Such light could also be placed by the penalty box and at both sides of both blue lines.
Red, as in a stop light, would signify a periods end. Green, should be a call on the opposing team, suggesting that the home team GO on with their play. An amber light would signify a call on the visiting team. A blue light, long identified with emergency, alerts officials and fans of a double minor call.
While I realize this may be a futuristic mess of technology and glitches to sort through, I am adamant that this is where the NHL confronts it's officiating grey area.
The NHL was behind the expansion curve four decades ago. Why not be progressive when the technology could be their best friend?
Of course, this technological officiating template would need tinkering. It would have to be out of view of the fans with nothing obstructing the game. Calls would have to be made much quicker than goals are reviewed presently.
It should not in any way resemble the goal review fiasco's of the late 1990's.
Most annoyingly, it may further subject fans to another crackdown on calls. It must be understood that, for a time, the number of calls would again increase.