Anyone who is involved in officiating in any sport will tell you that getting a call right is the goal of all who interpret the rules. But everyone knows that even the best officials make mistakes, and in the NHL there seem to be more complaints than ever from coaches and general managers about decisions made by refs and linesmen.
So what can be done? There are all sorts of ideas, but Major League Baseball's recent proposal to expand video review next season and greatly increase the use of replay by giving managers the right to challenge calls was almost guaranteed to get hockey people talking.
In fact, there will be a new use of replay in the NHL this coming season. All four-minute high-sticking double minor penalties will be reviewed to verify that the perpetrator's stick actually made contact with victim's head. That's hardly as sweeping as baseball's plan that will, by some estimates, make 89 percent of all plays eligible for review. But for the NHL, there is still something significant in the small step it is taking. It's actually a bit of a milestone.
Coming more than two decades after the introduction in 1991 of what was then called the "Video Goal Judge" system, the high-sticking review will be the first time the NHL has advanced its use of replay beyond strict goal/no goal parameters. Did the puck cross the goal line? Was it batted in illegally with a hand, a distinct kicking motion, or a stick above the height of the crossbar? Did time expire in a period before the puck entered the net? Was the goal frame dislodged before the puck entered the net?
For years, despite repeated calls to expand its scope, replay has been confined to answering those questions, with the exception of using the technology for some minor housekeeping matters related to the game clock. Even when a situation arose like the one last February when the Avalanche's Matt Duchene scored in a 6--5 win over the Predators after he was clearly offside, it was not eligible for review. The goal stood.
Despite its limits, the NHL's system has in many ways been a model for all sports, a seamless addition to the game's officiating process for over 20 seasons, but the league has always resisted expanding it. Finally, last spring, GM's put forth the new high-sticking element and the NHL-NHLPA Competition Committee approved it. We've seen replays of a player getting cut by his teammate's stick or his own or even no stick at all. Sometimes a puck or helmet does the damage. It can happen very fast in a tangle of bodies and a player will mistakenly be given four minutes in the box. Such blown calls can directly impact the outcome of games.
The idea for the 2013-14 season, according to league sources, is that the NHL's office in Toronto will handle the additional calls. Ideally as the referee on the ice is making his decision about whether a high sticking penalty should be two or four minutes, league staff in the Roger Neilson Video Room (where goal/no goal judgments are made) will be examining the video evidence at its disposal to determine how the fouled player was injured.
It all sounds pretty simple. But of course, it's not.
First of all, there's no absolute guarantee that Toronto will have the necessary video to make a correct call. For goal/no goal decisions, the league has access to exclusive overhead cameras and various other angles that can cover a great deal of the relevant action around the net. A high stick can take place anywhere on the ice, and while there are more TV cameras than ever shooting games, there's still a chance that they won't get the definitive shot.
That leads to the time factor.
Even if the occasional video decision about a goal takes a while to make, we've come to expect answers pretty quickly. When you think through how a double minor high stick call might be reviewed, there will likely be some delays. The ref puts his hand up to signal the infraction, and when the play is whistled dead he often goes over to check the victim to see if he's bleeding or has suffered some other injury that would turn a two minute call into a four minute penalty. Hopefully, that's when the process starts in Toronto, but since the review crew there may not immediately have all the appropriate angles in the video room, it may well have to wait until the broadcaster shows what they have and use it to verify the cause of the injury.
And then one must take into account all of the penalty's possible scenarios. How to do that is something the Hockey Operations Department has been trying to work through this summer. Let's say, for example, a player is going to be whistled for high sticking. The ref signals a delayed call, the team that was fouled pulls its goalie and scores a goal with the extra man. The ref then checks the player who was struck and signals a double minor, but the review in Toronto indicates that, in fact, he was injured by his own or a teammate's stick. What the hell happens then?
There are countless situations like that, oddities that the Hockey Ops staff must anticipate, figure out and run through with coaches and GMs, then pass along to the refs before training camp so everyone knows how it will rule if something weird occurs. There is no desire to halt a game for long stretches while determining the correct call. Will there be a learning curve for everyone? As Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is fond of saying, "You betcha."
Interestingly, baseball's new proposal will, if approved, imitate a key part of the NHL's current replay system, namely the Situation Room-style operation where techno-arbiters at MLB.com headquarters in New York review calls with the umpires. But what will likely get all the attention is something borrowed from the NFL: the coach's challenge. It's a bold step forward and, as you'd expect, baseball's proposal already has critics who contend that the measure doesn't go far enough. And there are, no doubt, traditionalists for whom any calls that are assisted by replay are tantamount to blasphemy. But the move comes from the mindset that technology in pursuit of getting a call right isn't a bad thing. One can only hope that MLB is as thorough in its "what-if" sessions as the NHL is being.
Challenge on ice
Hockey hasn't ignored the idea of a coach's challenge. A number of observers have been calling for its adoption, and it was discussed in 2010, as well as at the GMs meetings last March. What got hockey people buzzing again were some controversial plays early last season that involved goalie interference, some high-sticking calls and non-calls that TV replays revealed were in error and the offside goal by Duchene, which seemed to be something of a tipping point.
Enough noise was made that a few days after the Duchene incident, NHL Vice President Mike Murphy told NHL.com that he thought a coach's challenge could find its way into the rule book. "Sure," he said, "I think that there is a real possibility it could happen, but you'd have to sit down with a group of smart people and you'd have to go through just about every type of play you'd want to allow a challenge for. It can't be used as a tactic. That's a concern. It has to be a legitimate play that has been defined into the coach's challenge rule."
But at their meeting, the GMs started to run through different scenarios with the hockey ops people, especially cases that relate to goalie interference, and decided there were far too many possible pitfalls. They worried about the game slowing down, coaches abusing the challenge, and potentially undermining the referees. But instead of sparking more study and discussion, as Murphy suggested was needed, the notion died. That was too bad because rather than just being scrapped, the idea should have sparked the kind of study that Murphy mentioned. It should have been refined, not abandoned.
"You really have to limit replay to things that are clear, crystal clear, black and white," Commissioner Gary Bettman said on the NHL Network, "and when you start getting into the judgment calls that the officials make, that really isn't susceptible to video replay the way, you know, whether or not the puck crossed the line and you have a goal."
And there was even concern that implementing a coach's challenge might—heaven forbid!—decrease scoring.
"There were just too many situations that were brought up that would potentially slow the game down," NHL VP Kris King told NHL.com. "If we rule on goalie-interference plays, we are going to take more goals down than we are going to put up in a game where we want more scoring chances. Once we played devil's advocate with a lot of their questions, they just didn't feel that now is the right time to implement a coach's challenge."
At the time, I wrote, "If the overriding idea is to get calls right, and the technology exists to assist the officials in getting more of them right than they do under the current review system, why not work to figure out a way to harmonize a coach's challenge with the game's flow and the officials' on-ice judgment? There are enough dedicated and intelligent people in the game to devise parameters that would meet whatever objections were raised at this meeting." That still should happen, but it doesn't seem imminent.
Meanwhile, baseball will probably undertake its venture into the world of challenges and, if the NHL—which was once the leader in pro sports video review—ever decides to look at it again, it will have the benefit of MLB's experiences to help guide it.