The NHL has an officiating problem Inconsistent refs, linesmen need to raise their game

“Refs you suck! Refs you suck!”

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Opinion

“Refs you suck! Refs you suck!”

They are easy targets, the low-hanging fruit of professional sports. They require thick skin, short memories and are expected to maintain composure at all times. There’s no question they have a difficult and thankless job, one that usually only gets talked about when they screw up. They have my admiration and respect.

With that being said, and at the risk of joining the angry mob and piling on, this has not been a banner season for the NHL’s men in stripes. And that’s being kind. The league has an officiating problem, the evidence growing with each passing night.

The majority of my hockey viewing naturally involves the Winnipeg Jets. That’s the team I cover for a living. And fans around here certainly feel like their favourite team has been wronged on plenty of occasions. They would be right.

Nikolaj Ehlers took a knee-on-knee hit from Washington’s Dmitry Orlov on Jan. 18 that was ignored. (Patrick Semansky / The Associated Press files)

Who can forget Nikolaj Ehlers taking a blatant knee-on-knee hit from Washington’s Dmitry Orlov on Jan. 18 that somehow was ignored. Ehlers left the ice in agony and hasn’t played since. To add insult to injury, not only did Orlov remain in the game, his team not being assessed even a minor penalty, let alone a major, he went on to set-up the overtime winner. The NHL suspended Orlov for two games the following day. Ehlers, meanwhile, has now missed 19 straight with injury as the Jets have struggled to stay in the Western Conference playoff race, going 7-9-3 without one of their most dynamic players.

Last month, Edmonton defenceman Markus Niemeläinen viciously cross-checked Winnipeg forward Kristian Vesalainen (above) in full view of everyone. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Last month, Edmonton defenceman Markus Niemeläinen viciously cross-checked Winnipeg forward Kristian Vesalainen in full view of everyone. There were just over two minutes left in the third, and the Jets were pressing for the tying goal. But referees opted to look the other way, likely because they were already calling a too-many-men on the ice penalty against the Oilers. I guess awarding a two-man advantage, however justified, was not in the “game management” playbook — even if it meant giving the violent act that could have caused injury a free pass.

With just the one penalty called, Winnipeg failed to get the equalizer and lost the game and two valuable points. The next day, the NHL hit Niemeläinen with the maximum fine of US$2,043.75, which no doubt came as cold comfort to the local club.

With just the one penalty called, Winnipeg failed to get the equalizer and lost the game and two valuable points.

Andrew Copp was concussed by Minnesota’s Jordan Greenway on Feb. 16, the result of a blindside (likely accidental) hit. No penalty on the play. Copp missed six games (Winnipeg went 2-3-1) before returning to action in Tuesday’s 8-4 win over Montreal, scoring the game-winner and adding an assist. Late in the third period, Mark Scheifele was jumped by Canadiens defenceman Chris Wideman, then wrestled to the ice where he nearly hit his exposed head. Fighting majors were dished out in a situation where an instigator was obvious. But the Jets were in full control, so no harm, no foul, I guess?

Andrew Copp got a concussion while playing Minnesota on Feb. 16. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

There’s also the ever-changing standard of what is, and what isn’t, a penalty. From game-to-game. And often within the SAME game. Winnipeg and Arizona played last Sunday in the desert, and incredibly neither team got a single power play. Forty-hours later, the Jets and Habs combined for seven minors in the first period alone, many of them of the ticky-tack variety. But it was Hudson Bay rules by the middle frame, with both teams getting away with much more blatant violations of the rule book.

I realize all of this might make me sound like a whiny homer, which I most certainly am not. Let me be clear: I could go through the other 31 teams and likely list just as many examples, perhaps more, of situations where they were wronged. No doubt the Jets would be the guilty parties who skated away scot-free in some of those situations as well.

Let me be clear: I could go through the other 31 teams and likely list just as many examples, perhaps more, of situations where they were wronged.

A few weeks ago I had a Nashville-Dallas game on. Predators forward Yakov Trenin delivered a high, hard hit to the head of Stars defenceman John Klingberg. No arm went up. Stars captain Jamie Benn was irate, going after Trenin. Referees only sent Benn to the box, assessing two minutes for roughing. The linesmen swooped in, no doubt passing on what they’d seen, and after a lengthy discussion Trenin was given a five-minute penalty. That triggered an automatic video review (all majors are now looked at), and referees then downgraded it to two minutes for elbowing. Sheesh. What a mess.

BRANDON WADE / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE
Much confusions ensued after Stars captain Jamie Benn went after Nashville Predators forward Yakov Trenin after Trenin delivered a headshot to John Klingburg.

Last Sunday, I turned on Edmonton vs Carolina. Connor McDavid quickly opened the scoring in the first minute. The Hurricanes challenged for offside, and replays showed linesman had, in fact, whiffed. No goal. In the second period, Brett Pesce scored for Carolina. The Oilers challenged for offside, and replays showed another missed zone entry. No goal. There was an even more blatant miss later in the game, where the broadcasters were full-on saying it would be coming back if the puck went in the net, but it ultimately got cleared before a dubious “hat trick” of blunders could be achieved.

A goal by The Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid had to come back last week after the refs missed an offside. (Brandon Wade / The Associated Press files)

I was buoyed by a recent conversation I had with an official who shall remain nameless during a flight we shared while covering a Jets road trip. It became clear as day they recognize there are issues as well, although he shared insights with me into some reasons for the sorry state of affairs. Not unlike the way we’ve seen big-league rosters thinned out by injuries and especially COVID-19 this season, the zebras have taken serious hits as well. At one point in December, there were more than a dozen sidelined by pandemic protocols.

As a result, the NHL has had to bring up plenty of fresh faces from the minors to ensure they had enough four-man crews (two referees, two linesmen) to keep things running. In a handful of cases, such as last-minute positive tests, three-man outfits have been utilized. There’s also the matter of overwork caused by the shortages, with the NHL forced to change assignments on the fly and fill some unexpected voids. That inexperience and fatigue has been noticeable, especially when compounded with several recent retirements of seasoned veterans.

According to the website scoutingtherefs.com, the current season began with 10 referees who had between zero and 14 games of big-league work under their belts. There are also 19 contracted referees this year who are younger than 36-year-old Jets forward Paul Stastny. The youth movement is even more significant with linesmen. There are 24 younger than Stastny, and 13 who began this year with one season or less of experience — including seven making their debuts.

According to the website scoutingtherefs.com, the current season began with 10 referees who had between zero and 14 games of big-league work under their belts.

Hockey has never been faster, with a premium on speed and skill. Super slow-mo, high-definition television and increased video reviews, not to mention the scourge that can be social media, have brought about more scrutiny than ever. But the integrity of the game is paramount, especially with the NHL embracing legalized sports betting in a major way.

No, these refs (and linesman) don’t suck. They are the best in the world. But as we head down the regular-season stretch and into the all-important playoffs, let’s hope they can raise their game a few notches, the same way the players they’re paid to police usually do.

You know we’ll be watching. Closely.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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