It used to be that I thought NHL refs, of the four major sports at least, did the best job. Which wasn’t an accolade so much as just not crashing the car in quite such a fireball. Baseball umps make up their own strike zone while daring anyone to argue with them about it. It used to be that NBA refs were all too happy to make themselves the star of the show (though that feels like it’s lessening these days). NFL refs don’t even know the rules to their own game, and they seemingly change them every week anyway. Anyone who watched the ref of USA-Mexico needing two VARs to award two shambolic penalties knows that soccer would not exactly jump to the head of the class if allowed in the discussion.
So it felt like NHL refs were at least the best of a rancid bunch. But that certainly doesn’t seem to be the case, especially after Games 3 and 4 in Montreal between the Canadiens and Knights, where the refs put on a stunning display of DUHHHH-dom.
A brief sampling of things that were deemed not worthy of a call, and believe me this hardly encompasses anywhere near it all:
The NHL will make promotional videos of Corey Perry rushing back out of the dressing room to celebrate an overtime win while his nose was dangling somewhere around his ear, while never mentioning it didn’t draw the four minute power play that it should have. And Alex Tuch’s sidewalk-slam technique could use some work, but probably isn’t that easy on skates. Perhaps the most galling is Brayden McNabb’s punch, because we can all see ref Chris Lee right there and looking at it, and still unable to see the schooner.
The joke that refs become in the third period, and especially overtime in playoff games, has been around forever, but this has gotten beyond the point where the NHL can simply throw up its hands and say, “that’s our game!” Crusty broadcasters and league officials like to bleat about letting the players decide, but we can’t stress enough that these uncalled infractions aren’t the players deciding. It’s the refs.
The players have decided that one of them put the other one in such a disadvantageous position that the second had to do something illegal, or the second one is just such a bonehead, and thus the first player has earned a power play for his team. Or the bonehead has cost his team, either way. The ref has decided the rules don’t apply anymore. That’s not “letting them play.” That’s “letting them fend for themselves.” That’s a big difference.
It gotten so egregious that last night even the league’s flagship carrier in Canada, and thus the most paid-attention-to broadcaster, Sportsnet, had an entire panel wailing about how bad it was and how bad it looked for the league. Of course, the problem there is that the broadcast is hosted by a geriatric pissbaby who just happens to be a former NHL ref who did everything he could to shut down the discussion in the most childish way possible:
Sportsnet was actually on to something when it chose George Stroumboulopoulos to host Hockey Night in Canada, even if he was Seinfeld’s “close talker” come to life. But he was young, vibrant, loved the job, had amazing socks, watched the game in a way that younger generations did, and seemingly moved the broadcast and even game beyond the Quaker Oats demo that MacLean and others are determined to keep it in.
If you want to know why NHL analysts spend more time talking about barely-bathed swamp creatures like Ryan Reaves or Pat Maroon or Matt Martin during the playoffs as much as they do Mat Barzal or Brayden Point, it’s because the refs allow them to be as much of the story. They become factors because the refs are too chickenshit to put them in the box for their roughing, or holding, or whatever else they have to do to stay relevant and keep the true talent from shining and deciding games. While the NBA discussions today are about Trae Young and Ben Simmons and Devin Booker, absolute stars that were either allowed to succeed or fail on their own merits, this is what the NHL gets.
Coming out of the Great Bettman Lockout II (2005), the NHL was willing to watch regular season games have 10, or 12, or sometimes more power plays per game as the players adjusted to the crackdown on interference, holding, and any other obstruction as the league sought to escape the Clutch and Grab era. But the playoffs are the jewel. That’s what will sell the game to others. That’s where the supposed theater really lies. And yet the league has games where their agents, the refs, are terrified to hand out more than one or two power plays per team each game. So you get this dreck.
There were four penalties in last night’s game. Two were off-setting. So one power play each for Montreal and Vegas. You didn’t have to see a second of that game to know that’s utter horseshit. Hockey simply moves too fast for there to only be four instances of players committing a penalty. The league seems to think it would be worse to have a playoff game with 10 power plays total in it, including even one or two in overtime god forbid, than games that resemble third-division rugby Also, there were three goals and 49 shots total in last night’s game. It seems only the NHL can’t figure out that it’s connected.