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Zebras Under Fire

by Dave Mishkin / Tampa Bay Lightning

Officiating sports can be a thankless job.  Your best games often are the ones in which nobody notices you.  The reactions you get from players, coaches and fans are almost universally negative.  What makes the job even more difficult is that the job IS difficult.  Hockey, for example, is a fast game and it’s possible that some plays are missed.  Others are judgment calls that are sure to anger the side that didn’t benefit from the call.  So while we all have ranted and raved about officiating at one point or another, I believe that officials generally do the best they can.  Furthermore, I think that while controversial calls can be significant, they aren’t ever the sole determining factor in the outcome of a game.  In other words, the losing team could have done others things more effectively throughout the game so that the tough call didn’t make a difference in the final score.

Mishkin's Moments: December 21, 2008
With that preface as a backdrop, I want to address the call from last week’s Lightning-Avalanche game in which Milan Hejduk was awarded a shootout goal because officials determined goaltender Mike Smith deliberately threw his stick.  The Avs won the shootout, 1-0.  At first, the play was ruled a “no goal”.  Then, after the fact, the officials conferred for several minutes, eventually overturned the call and gave Hejduk a goal.  Replays seemed to indicate that while Smith dropped his stick, he did not deliberately throw it.  Watching the play over and over on the scoreboard, the St. Pete Times Forum crowd became incensed and tempers flared even more after Marty St. Louis was denied on the Lightning’s final shot attempt.

After the game, Mike Murphy, the NHL’s Director of Hockey Operations, did not allow reporters to speak to the officials.  He said to the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune, “I don’t think any good can come of it.  There’s a hot environment down there right now, and I think it’s best they not speak because I don’t want them getting trapped.”  What was noticeably absent from that statement was an endorsement of the call.  Murphy easily could have added that he felt the officials got it right.  He didn’t, which leads me to believe that Murphy didn’t agree with their decision.  On the other hand, the next day, Stephen Walkom, the NHL’s Director of Officials, did support the call.  He stated to Lightning reporters that while “it was a very tough call … it was a call that was made in an instant and I support the call.  At the end of the day, the guys on the ice made a judgment call and you have to support it.  I don’t think the video refutes it.”

So what do we take out these comments?  First, Walkom is right that the officials made a judgment call.  Specifically, referee Brian Pochmara, who felt most strongly that Smith deliberately threw his stick.  Because it was a judgment call, not everyone is going to agree with it – perhaps not even the league’s Director of Hockey Operations.  In fact, most people would argue that he made the wrong call.  To me, however, if an official feels adamantly about a call, then he’s right to take a stand.  

The problem with this specific scenario, however, is that the call was not made “in an instant”, as Walkom contended.  A different call was made first; it was only after a lengthy conference that the officials changed the call.  This says to me that initially, there was not a universal consensus about the stick throwing.  In other words, Pochmara had to make his case to his colleagues.  Either they didn’t see the stick come out of Smith’s hand (which seems unlikely), or they didn’t feel at first that he deliberately threw it (but were less convinced of that opinion than Pochmara was about his).

This wasn’t a question of whether the puck crossed the line, so currently it is not a reviewable play.  In my opinion, this rule needs to change.  Both Murphy and Walkom oppose the use of video for such a play.  Murphy told Lightning reporters Damian Cristodero and Erik Erlendsson that “we don’t need anyone refereeing from above” while Walkom said to them that “I know it wouldn’t change the result of this call.”  But what if referees Pochmara and Tim Peel were the reviewers?  What if Pochmara could watch a replay at the penalty box area?  Likely, he would need only one viewing to reach a conclusion – either the replay would affirm his initial conviction or it would tell him that what he thought he saw wasn’t what actually occurred.  

Replay exists in football and now baseball.  In those sports, the on-field officials are the ones to look at the video.  I’m not suggesting the NHL completely follows suit.  The league’s current system for goal reviews makes sense.  The war room in Toronto and the in-arena video judges have the benefit of large screen TVs and slow motion replays.  They are the ones who can best determine whether a puck crosses the goal line.  But for key plays that aren’t reviewable, the NHL should join their fellow leagues.  Give the on-ice officials the tools that will help them in their decision-making process.

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