Monday, March 10, 2008

Phantom Calls Threaten NHL Experience

Mickey Redmond's incredulous comments aside, I'm able to formulate my own opinions -- and they don't stray very far from the Red Wings' TV analyst.

"Holy smoke!"

"He barely touched him!"

"(derisive chuckling)"

Officiating in the NHL is at an all-time low in terms of quality, consistency, and accuracy. I'm talking in terms of penalties, though there have also been some curious judgments when it comes to rather obvious things -- like pucks bouncing off the protective netting above the glass. I'm sure you know of which I refer.

Watching the Red Wings and the Predators play last night, it occurred to me that the NHL fan gets two games for the price of one: the regular contest between the two teams, and a bonus game, pitting each club's specialty teams against one another. The latter is ridiculously influenced by the zebras.

It's a case of being careful what you wish for. As early as the mid-1980s, I had longed for a second referee -- someone to stay behind the action, policing the nonsense that was happening 30-40 feet from the main action. It was a time when I thought that would be, you know, a GOOD thing.

So the NHL added that second ref, alright, but all it got us was an influx of power plays -- and 5-on-3s.

A year and a half ago, I was talking to Ted Lindsay, the still-irascible Red Wing of the 1950s.

"When I played, if you saw two 5-on-3s the whole YEAR, that was a lot," Terrible Ted told me. "And the player who was responsible for the second penalty would find himself in Edmonton the next day." (Edmonton was the Red Wings' minor league affiliate in those days).

"But now, you see 5-on-3s all the time," Lindsay said, shaking his head.

But it's not JUST that there's a lot of penalties -- and, of course, 5-on-3s. It's what's being called.

Last night, Niklas Kronwall was moving, stride-for-stride, with a Predator player along the boards. It was nothing more than two determined players going for the puck. But up went the referee's right arm. Holding.

"I think the refs are trying to balance things out a bit," Larry Murphy said from his new position, between the benches, as the third man on the FSN team. "They called a lot of penalties on Nashville earlier in the game. They like to have a more even scoresheet."

Now, the notion of refs and umps making "makeup calls" has been going on forever. I can even tolerate that, to a degree. But the NHL officials are bastardizing the game with their ticky-tack, almost basketball-like way they're calling games. In other words, I agree that if the sport was hoops, then you've got yourself some fouls. But the game's hockey, and you can't touch a guy anymore.

The league, several years ago, wanted to come down hard on obstruction. Their reasoning -- and it wasn't bad -- was that the game's more talented players were being held up by some of the lesser ones. No one was paying, they said, to see the star players being put into wrestling holds through the neutral zone. Again, hard to argue.

But the trouble is, nobody seemed to hold any sort of leadership meeting to actually try to define what should be called and what shouldn't. The result was that each referee formulated his own opinion, and more and more of them erred on the side of blowing the whistle. As bad as it was in the beginning, it's horrific now.

It's hard to watch the NHL now as a result. Games have little flow, and nearly half of the 60 minutes, often, are spent in power play situations, or 4-on-4s. It'd be like if the NFL switched to Canadian football rules and punted on third down. Way too much special teams emphasis.

I really hope the league mucky-mucks congregate this summer and try to better define what is a penalty and what should be, frankly, ignored.

Or, to quote Redmond again: "It's hockey, for goodness sakes!"

No comments: