At the close of play on Friday night, 284 of the 1,230 regular season games had been completed in this seasons NHL calendar. To date 2,884 minor penalties have been assessed with an average of over 10.1 a game up from 9.6 last year. Its been no secret that on ice officials are currently working on the post-lockout remit that the league set in an attempt to open up the ice for skilled forwards whilst increasing the speed of the game; and the vast majority of calls have mirrored the desire to see less obstruction . What is of concern is that in the season after the lockout a staggering 12.7 minors were assessed per game as players got to grips with the more stringent policing of free hand holds and stick violations. Since, there has been a noted downshift in penalties assessed each and every year as the officiating loosened up and players learnt their new boundaries. At current pace, this season looks to be first in which a significant rise in minors will be seen since 2005.
Notwithstanding the typical early season officiating, fresh from the summer league briefings, referees have been calling games unusually tight and the subsequent quality of the on ice product has decreased notably from last year. Indeed many matchups have devolved into special teams parades as questionable calls create a rut in the ice leading to the penalty box.
Last nights meeting between Tampa Bay and Nashville was one such microcosmic affair. With coverage supplied by Florida’s Sun Sports network, the presentation team included former NHL enforcer Chris Dingman between periods and Broad Street Bullies net minder Bobby Taylor providing color commentary. Neither man pulled any punches in their appraisal of the game in which 13 minor penalties were assessed including four hooking calls, three holding the stick violations and three holding infringements. Exasperated by a holding call on Evgeny Artyukin in which his free hand brushed a Nashville player’s jersey an already agitated Taylor exclaimed:
Whoever thought these calls were going to be good for hockey, well I would like to talk to them; this has to be looked at by the league.
In the meantime Dingman lamented after three first period stick holding penalties:
This is why I can’t play in this league anymore, when they’re calling penalties on players just trying to retain the puck, I’d be taking a penalty every shift.
The subsequent match became a dire affair as villainous officials LaRue, Pochmara, Amell and Nowak assessed penalty after dubious penalty slanting the ice one way then the other, breaking up the flow of the game entirely and creating the very same problem the NHL hoped to eradicate. Worse still and league wide the increased softening up of holding, hooking and goaltender interference laws has created a diving culture not dissimilar to soccer and in much the same way as soccer referees, hockey officials are more inclined to call an infraction that an unsportsmanlike act. Where many cases should have seen coincidental minors, referees seem twice bitten in mounting up PIM’s with diving charges for players who draw penalties.
Naturally most want to see five on five as this is the purest most fraught form of hockey. Power plays are an undeniably exciting event but seeing one between every other shift detracts from the drama somewhat and the continued reliance on special teams is having an abject effect on a league where a good power play unit can see an otherwise weak team garner an increasing advantage, especially now they no longer have to work on getting the puck into the attacking zone on the delayed call.
Clearly the NHL will have to review its officiating policy. Where once aggravated fans could vent their grievances at the on-ice staff there is an increasing feeling that over zealous calls are results of something more endemic than power crazed referees. The league is obviously leaning on the 68 zebra that make up the officiating register, but far from opening up the ice the game is devolving into a compliancy crapshoot. Whoever can play the softest, slyest or instinct free game will often times prevail as hard charging, exciting teams buckle under endless penalty killing stints.
Free hand holding, holding the stick, coincidental tripping, minimal contact holding and goaltender interference calls are the primary culprits and necessitate swift evaluation lest the game slips into a farce. With every game seemingly having three or four avoidable penalty calls it’s surely a matter of time until the leagues governing body relents, swallows its pride and allows the officials, most of whom started in the NHL prior to 2005, to return to a more old school stance.
In the meantime the NHL seems to have lost sight on what it possess, one of the worlds greatest contact sports. Controlled violence and skill are the kind of polar facets which draw crowds and audiences the NHL needs to tap into. Watering down the game into penalty strewn skating and specialty teams exhibitions do little to market a sport at it’s best when both teams are at even strength and it won’t bring in a substantial US TV deal either. There is no denying that penalties are necessary in cases of injury prevention and dangerous play. Boarding, spearing and stick butting alongside high cross checks, elbowing and avoidable high sticks are all worthy of two minutes in the penalty box as are cynical, lazy or Neanderthal obstruction calls. The problem is in the current NHL these calls are in the vast minority to chincy, needless and game breaking officiating.
Only time will tell if the officials loosen up as the season wears on as has been their want in previous years. Meanwhile the NHL needs to look at a grass roots pee-wee level response to the obstruction elements of the game to create a change in holding culture as opposed to lumbering fans with games ruined by overtly stringent policing.