How NHL officials handle the intensity —
8: 00 AM ET
- Emily Kaplan is ESPN’s national NHL reporter.
IT’S ROUND 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the Boston Bruins are facing the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 2 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Tensions flare early, as Boston winger David Pastrnak collides with Carolina goalie Antti Raanta, knocking him out of the game with a bloody face. Scrums (and more) form at nearly every whistle. At one point, four Bruins players are sitting in the penalty box. Boston loses a player, too, as defenseman Hampus Lindholm exits the game in the second period after absorbing a massive hit from Andrei Svechnikov.
It feels like things could get out of hand at any moment.
This is playoff hockey. Stakes are high, emotions run higher and the intensity is tangible for players, coaches and fans alike. There’s more physicality and more familiarity with the same teams playing night after night. Over the past decade, the NHL reports there has been 45% more hitting in playoff games as compared with regular-season games.
Already this postseason, there have been a handful of controversial cross-checks, a bloody brawl, an ejection and a one-game suspension for boarding, and several goalie interference reviews.
It’s the job of the game officials, among their numerous other duties, to keep the lid on all this, preventing the tinderbox from exploding. And all the while, the default chant in hockey arenas throughout North America has become, “Ref, you suck!”
Flashback six weeks. When the NHL’s general managers convened in late March for their annual meetings in Florida, commissioner Gary Bettman addressed the group: “It’s time to talk about officiating.”
It had been a challenging week for the men in stripes, including two apparent missed calls late in Coyotes-Maple Leafs and Oilers-Capitals games, with both directly preceding deciding goals. There was also a feisty news conference from Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog in which he said: “In 11 years, I’ve never sat and talked about referees in a press conference. But sometimes it’s time for players to step up and speak their truth.”
According to several people at the March session, Bettman stood at the front of the ballroom at the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa and acknowledged that the league’s officiating isn’t perfect.
“All of you know,” Bettman reasoned with the 32 general managers, “how hard the officials work, how difficult the game is to officiate and how rigorously the officials are critiqued. Concerns about certain calls or situations? My line is always open.”
Then, a warning: “If you criticize the officials publicly, you will get fined.”
Officiating remains a sensitive topic for the league, and the scrutiny will only grow as the playoffs continue and the intensity ratchets up even higher. Bettman’s directive, however, was hardly reactionary. League officials say the commissioner has delivered a version of this speech dozens of times over his 29 years in office. And he’ll do it again four times this spring.
Before each round of the playoffs, Bettman holds a mandatory call for coaches and general managers in which he once again warns them: Airing grievances about officiating publicly is not productive for anyone.
Privately? The state of officiating is a much more nuanced matter.
THE BIGGEST COMPLAINT about officiating come playoff time is that refs seemingly put away their whistles and don’t call penalties that should be called. The league says that isn’t the case. NHL director of officiating Stephen Walkom and Bettman instruct officials to call the standard — call it in the first five minutes, and call it in overtime.
“I think the issue is, fans aren’t used to seeing everyone finishing their checks,” said Dave Jackson, the retired longtime NHL referee and current ESPN rules analyst. “Everyone backchecking, more hitting, more physicality, way less time and space.”
The nature of games changes once the playoffs start.
“I don’t think the referees call the game differently in the playoffs; I think players play the game differently,” St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. “There’s more outrage on a soft call than letting a marginal one go. I think you want to earn your penalties, maybe that’s old school. But from our perspective, we want to make sure [Ryan] O’Reilly and [Vladimir] Tarasenko and [Robert] Thomas and [Jordan] Kyrou have the ability to do for us what they did all regular season. That’s what we want, that’s what the fans want.”
The numbers don’t bear out the notion that referees put their whistles away in the postseason. In eight of the past 10 seasons, there have been more power-play opportunities per game in the playoffs than in the regular season. Through the first 28 games of this postseason (admittedly a small sample size), teams averaged 4.18 power plays per game; the league average during the regular season was 2.89.
There is a group of critics who believe star players need to be better protected in the playoffs, with the example of Connor McDavid in Edmonton’s 2021 first-round loss often cited. McDavid did not draw a single penalty in 211 minutes, despite some casual viewers counting as many as two dozen potential infractions.
Since 2016-17, McDavid has drawn 1.41 penalties per 60 minutes during the regular season. In that same time frame, the number has dropped to 0.72 penalties per 60 minutes during the postseason.
Interestingly, those numbers aren’t consistent for all star players. The penalty-drawn rates of Brad Marchand and Auston Matthews have gone down in the playoffs in their careers. Meanwhile, Tarasenko, Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos all have seen their penalty-drawn rates go up in the postseason.
Teams know they can’t control how the game is called and need to stay true to their style of play regardless.
“It’s up to us to get our team to play hard, get to the net front, battle harder there and earn those things,” Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas said. “And they should be harder in the playoffs.”
Of course, complaints about their performance are part of every official’s job. ESPN sought input from 15 players and coaches about officials, offering them anonymity so they could provide honest opinions.
A handful of players were critical. “I think the consistency can be a joke sometimes,” one veteran winger said.
One head coach told ESPN that while he is generally OK with the state of officiating, he feels makeup calls are common.
“You’ll see it all the time,” the coach said. “The refs call something early. Then you just wait … because you know they’re going to call the next ticky-tacky borderline infraction against the other team. It always seems to work that way.”
However, a majority of the commentary fell more in line with this quote from a veteran NHL defenseman. There’s a level of empathy for officials that often gets lost in the heat of a postgame news conference.
“I actually have no issues with officiating,” the defenseman said. “No matter how emotional I get on the ice — and you probably see it, I yell at linesmen, I yell at refs all the time — they’re out there just trying to do their job just like I am. They’re going to make mistakes, just like I’m going to make mistakes.
“The linesmen, at the end of the day, their job is to protect us, which is a thankless job. I could probably do better with some gratitude because they really do a good job taking care of us. Then the refs are the refs. Some good ones might make a bad call sometimes and bad ones call good ones. That’s a job you can’t win at, ever. I’m sure you’ve heard me after someone calls a penalty on me, and I’m dropping so many f-bombs at them. And then it cools off, and then I usually say sorry, because at the end of the day I really do respect them.”
LAST YEAR, NHL referee Tim Peel was working a March game between the Nashville Predators and Detroit Red Wings when he was caught on a hot mic after issuing a tripping penalty to Nashville forward Viktor Arvidsson. “It wasn’t much,” Peel was heard saying. “But I wanted to get a f—ing penalty against Nashville early.”
The comments sent the hockey world ablaze, igniting a chorus of criticism from those who believe makeup calls exist. Peel, who was one month away from retiring, did not work another NHL game. League vice president Colin Campbell condemned Peel’s comments, saying there was no justification “no matter the context or intention.”
It was a public relations disaster, fueling the notion that officials manage the game.
“That seems to be a default for a lot of people,” Walkom said. “But it couldn’t be further from the truth. You’re managing situations, but you’re not managing the game.”
Officials are indeed “managing the game,” but not in ways that many fans might realize.
“I hate that ‘manage the game’ now has a negative connotation,” Jackson, the former referee, said. “When you manage something, you’re managing emotions, you’re managing personalities. You’re not out there with a preconceived idea of what I want this game to be. You’re just taking what you’re given and you do the best job you can with the tools you have at your disposal.”
Stand between the benches for an NHL game and one of the most noteworthy things is the constant chatter among officials, players and coaches. Linesmen are communicating with the benches about line changes. Referees are answering questions and explaining situations.
“All of that is vital for the continuous flow of the game,” Walkom said.
And then there’s the on-ice communication that largely occurs after the whistle. Officials are pulling players out of scrums, skating alongside them, playing part traffic cop, part parent, part counselor.
It’s one of the reasons Walkom doesn’t believe taking referees off the ice — and utilizing technology or an “eye in the sky” perspective to officiate games, which has come up in league discussions — would work. It’s impossible, and not necessarily desirable, to remove the human element. Another key reason is sight lines. It’s a lot easier to make a judgment call at ice level.
“There’s always all sorts of ideas on how to use technology — it’s always discussed among GMs and the competition committee,” Walkom said. “And it comes down to, how perfect do you want to make the game? Was the game meant to be perfect?
“For a fan, the more continuous north-south hockey with more scoring chances, goals and skills is better. We need to remember the game is for the fans and the players who play it. We have to be careful with how much we interfere.”
Jackson mentioned that in managing the game, referees have certain tools at their disposal, and one of those tools is penalties. If things are getting out of hand in scrums or gatherings after whistles, referees often assess unsportsmanlike conduct penalties to quiet things down. They also can call 10-minute misconducts if necessary.
But there is never an edict to keep things even, or relatively even, the league insists.
“For most officials, you don’t walk out of the arena thinking, ‘If both teams got two penalties each, that was a well-called game,'” Walkom said. “You walk out of the game and say, ‘Did you call the game fairly?’ If you call six penalties one way and one on the other team, it might not seem fair to fans, or maybe not to teams. But if there were six penalties one way and one the other, and that’s all there was, you did your job and you’d be supported doing it.”
In all of the discourse about officiating, the psyche of the official is often left out.
“It’s extremely tough mentally because we’re being told by everyone that we’re ruining the game,” Jackson said. “The only thing that keeps us sane is when Walkom sends daily emails that say, ‘If you call the standard, we’ll support you.'”
BEING AN OFFICIAL is a grind. Most are on the road 20 days a month.
“The players have 41 home games,” Jackson said. “If you live in an NHL city you might get five home games. You’re also doing your own laundry, booking your own hotels, rental cars.”
In addition to the in-game criticism from players and coaches, and the hue and cry from fans, officials are constantly being scrutinized by the league. There is a logger assigned to every game, who notes every call — as well as every potential missed call. At midseason, the officials receive a written evaluation that covers their judgment, professionalism, skating and fitness.
Recently, there has become a shortage of officials at all levels of hockey in North America, a situation exacerbated by the pandemic. Just as the supply chain was dwindling, a more specialized workforce was needed. The game has evolved to become faster and more skilled, and the NHL needed a new level of officials to keep up.
Over the past several years, Walkom has started recruiting former players, both from college and junior hockey. He said the biggest untapped market is among women’s hockey players. For the first time this year, 10 women officiated in the AHL, the NHL’s development league. All of those women went through the NHL’s exposure combine or the NHL Officiating Association’s mentorship program.
The NHL had 11 officials make their debuts this season, which is a huge spike compared with typical years and has left the overall pool of officials less experienced than in the past. In the decade prior, the average number of officials to debut in a season was four, according to data tracked by the website Scouting the Refs.
The biggest reason there are so many rookies? The NHL didn’t hire any new officials in 2020-21. Combine that with five officials retiring after last season (three, including Peel, were scheduled; two had career-ending injuries), and the NHL needed to make some call-ups. When officials reach a certain age or see declining performance levels, the league works out a succession plan to phase them out.
The NHL has 70 full-time officials, and almost all of them have a goal of working in the playoffs. A lot of it is for personal pride, but there’s also a large financial incentive.
Officials earn significant bonus money for every playoff round they work, but each round, the number of officials working gets cut in half. If an official works the Stanley Cup Final, he will earn a minimum of 25% of his yearly salary and up to 40% (depending on level of experience).
And it’s cutthroat. Just like the teams in the playoffs, if an official doesn’t perform, he’s not moving on. There are officials who worked the second round of the playoffs last year who will miss the postseason this year because of performance. Nothing is guaranteed.
“You’re getting the best officials in the playoffs,” Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello said. “They’re not going to be the deciding factor. What you don’t want is anyone to manage the game. All you want is for them to call what they see, not what they thought they saw. Two things. Don’t manage the game. And call what you’re 100 percent sure of.”
Fans would likely have more empathy for officials if they could hear from them. Imagine if after a call or non-call, the officials were to explain what they saw from their sight line and shared insight on how they experienced the game unfold. Or if the officials spoke publicly from time to time, people might just realize … how normal they are. And how they simply do their job for the love of the game.
That’s not happening anytime soon.
“Officials understand their role,” Walkom said. “It is to have the game called to the standard laid down by the league, to promote fairness and safety, and uphold the integrity of the game so that players can play the game at an optimal level. That’s what the fans come to the rink for. They don’t come to see the ref interviewed postgame.
“Officials didn’t get into the game to be media stars. They get into it to serve the game, and serve it in a manner that allows the players to play and the coaches to coach. Maybe that’s what’s best for the game.”
Like many matters with officiating, the answer is not necessarily black and white.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.