People who care passionately about the National Hockey League, who are invested in its future, who are personally responsible for everything from its blaring and bombastic arena presentation to its most quixotic analytics, are flummoxed over the game’s general perception in the week it has awarded its hallowed grand prize.
Yes, the Tampa Bay Lightning are resplendently worthy of the Stanley Cup. Working assiduously with authority and speed and near-perfect positioning on the puck, the Bolts this week became the first club to win two Cups in a row since the Penguins in 2016 and 2017.
But the arduous NHL postseason that produced these particular Stanley Cup champions was widely regarded as an officiating calamity.
Commissioner Gary Bettman, chatting with Sportsnet’s Ron McLeary on Canadian TV on Monday night after seven weeks of on-ice mayhem and whistle-wielding myopathy, informed the general hockey audience that when it comes to the difficult task of on-ice adjudication, “We’re getting it right virtually all the time, but not 100 percent of the time.”
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Perhaps you missed the Crosschecking Festival that has played out over the continent since mid-May, in which players have been savaged by the shaft of opponents’ sticks to all manner of already-battered body parts, only to find this is apparently no longer a penalty, or rarely one.
Perhaps you missed the Magnificent Seven, when the New York Islanders gave up the go-ahead goal in Game 2 of the semifinals while the Lightning had seven skaters on the ice — seven being, just let me check quickly, yes, more than prescribed. Two more.
Perhaps you missed referee Chris Lee, with no more apparent authority than ring announcer Michael Buffer, gazing benignly at Vegas’ Brayden McNabb as he punched Montreal’s Nick Suzuki in the face right in front of his whistle. Play continued, just as it had when Lee watched Vegas’ Jonathan Marchessault perform some freelance rhinoplasty on the face of Montreal’s Corey Perry, swinging the blade of his stick into Perry’s face, later brought together with nine stitches.
No wonder so many online videos of these incidents are either accompanied by ads for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or with warnings that the content you seek might not be appropriate for the squeamish.
The list of wrong or non-calls this postseason runs longer than most attention spans, but its impact might begin to metastasize for two reasons that really unnerve the league’s pilots. One is that the league seems enthusiastic about negating the talents of its truly gifted players in the postseason. The Hockey News reported that, after the four-game Edmonton-Winnipeg series, Rachel Doerrie, a former NHL consultant completing a master’s in data and analytics, isolated no fewer than 37 violations against Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, the league’s most ascendant star. None of them were called. McDavid did not draw a penalty in this postseason or last. With that degree of enforcement just as the league is starting a new seven-year deal with ESPN, the boardrooms of the NHL have to know their untapped hockey markets will only descend further into the well-established confusion that keeps the league standing in its own way.
Why are penalties in the second period not penalties late in the third? Why are penalties in the regular season not penalties in the postseason? These are ageless, interminably confusing hockey questions among people who are either casual fans or are non-fans, a.k.a the future of the league. Well, let me speak directly to those people: YOU ARE NEVER GOING TO UNDERSTAND THIS!
There are too many warring factions within the NHL hierarchy to sort this out even among themselves. They are in a constant and toxic conflict over whether to shape the product for an older, more traditional, mostly Canadian audience, or for a younger, larger, potentially more lucrative market that, while not exactly diverse, is spread across diverse multiple media platforms and revenue streams.
What all of this has sparked, for better or worse and for want of a more political term, is a bout of Critical Ref Theory, also on the hockey scene for ages.
The game got through most of the last century with one referee on the ice (with two linesmen, who could not call penalties). Just about every night, the coaches and the veteran players knew what they were getting in that one particular referee. This guy is strict, this guy is lenient, this guy is confounding, etc.
But just as the National Football League has discovered, the more the NHL tries to improve the situation, the worse it gets. Now there are two referees on the ice, sometimes working at cross purposes, both hyper-scrutinized and “aided” by replays sent to their iPads after every game, coach challenges, and a war room.
The task is hard enough. Hockey is a sport of flowing, roiling, random madness. NHL officials are the best in the world at sorting out the unsortable, but they are not “getting it right virtually all the time,” Gary.