On Tuesday night, the NHL had it’s most open secret blurted out. I, of course, am talking about “Game Management”, or the rather subjective form of officiating that plagues not just the highest level of the sport, but all levels of the game. I’m talking about the belief that calling penalties is a bigger disturbance to the game than the penalties themselves. The belief that a fairly called game is one where each team gets equal opportunity on special teams, even when one team is breaking more rules. The belief that one must “let them play” and that the officials “can’t decide games”, even if allowing infractions prevents proper play and decides the games.
Here at The Faceoff Circle, I’ve gone into detail on this topic a few times. Most notably in 2019 when I wrote about the best way to exploit the paradoxes of Game Management (spoilers: get good at special teams, and then play dirtier), and this year when I showed how those in Toronto who were starting to get frustrated about this had a point, and how the entire league has this issue.
Maybe if you're a mic'd up ref, you shouldn't express how you wanted to call a penalty against a team earlier in the game, changing how you ref the rest of the game.
— Matt Best (@bestofmatt) March 24, 2021
All this is to say, last night shook the hockey world a little. Not in shock of what happened, but in that it was said so overtly. To summarize, in an evening game between the Detroit Red Wings and Nashville Predators, Viktor Arvidsson was penalized for tripping Jon Merrill. A few minutes after the infraction, referee veteran Tim Peel was caught on-mic by Fox Predators’ broadcast saying “It wasn’t much, but I wanted to get a fucking penalty against Nashville early in the period”. According to Matt Duchene, this remark was made to Filip Forsberg, telling the Nashville bench straight up what the intention was.
All you need to do to figure out why Peel felt this way is look at the box sheet. At that point, the penalty count was 1-0 Detroit, and that penalty – coincidentally against Arvidsson, who was interfered with by Adam Erne – led to a powerplay goal just 18 seconds into the man advantage. Penalty differential tends to find its way to 0 in the long term, and if there’s a difference in powerplay goals, it usually means the scorers are going to be seen under more scrutiny. This, of course, goes against how the rules should actually work, but it’s the way hockey has been called for most of our lifetimes.
Rarely, though, do we get to hear a referee flat out say it in stunningly clear quality on a broadcast, then amplified onto social media. Suffice to say, it threw a lot of people off, and the NHL confirmed that it would be investigating before the night was over.
Today, the league made what on the surface, looks like a huge announcement: Peel would no longer be calling games, ending his 21-year career on the spot.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) March 24, 2021
This seems like a huge punishment for Peel, who is one of the league’s most tenured referees. However, that point of tenure is important to understanding what’s actually happening here. As confirmed by Elliotte Friedman this morning, Peel was at the twilight of his career, and more specifically planning on retiring this season. His last game was scheduled for April 24th, or exactly a month from now.
Combine this with the wording of the press release, which states that he will “no longer be working NHL games”, rather than saying that he was fired or even suspended, and what you have here is an official that’s being taken on the schedule for a few weeks, conveniently the last few of his career. He likely won’t lose his benefits, so what this takes away from him, at most, is the ability to go out on his own terms. That’s quite a bit of difference from, say, firing a younger official with years left in him and blacklisting him from the league, which is the way that the NHL wants this press release to be read.
Of course, if that was the scenario at play, such a ruling would never happen. Because what Peel is guilty of isn’t “in direct contradiction to the adherence of the that cornerstone principle that we demand of our officials and that our fans, players, coaches, and all associated with the game expect and deserve”, as Colin Campbell (himself no stranger to tampering with the officiating process) states in this press release. The only bug in what happened was Peel’s forgetfulness that he was on a microphone that might be picked up by a broadcast. The actions themselves are a feature, one that the NHL wears with pride, and even brags about as the situation gets worse in even more important postseason games. The games have always been under-called, forced to the middle, and outright subjective in terms of enforcing the rulebook, with the consistency of Plinko board – utterly random in its process, with a long-term bias towards the middle in its results.
What’s happened here has solved absolutely nothing. There are five games scheduled to be played tonight, and they’ll all have some form of game management in them. There will be more controversial calls, even more controversial non-calls. People will still yell that “we can’t call everything”, as if the best players in the world can’t adapt to following the actual rulebook. The star players will still be bullied, hacked at, and pulled down with little to no consequence by the scrubs, and the bad teams will still do everything they can to slow down the good ones because they can’t keep up when chasing them cleanly. The same will happen in the other leagues that “learn from the best”, the sun will set and rise again, and we’ll do it again tomorrow.
Nothing will change until we accept this as a fundamental, systemic problem in our game, and that maybe, just maybe, forcing the best and the worst closer together under the doublespeak of “not deciding games” is bad for the product. Maybe this instance puts things an inch closer to the right direction, particularly if those in the betting industry that the NHL wants to break into start to ask questions, but it’s doubtful. Even if it does, the league remains miles away from fixing this problem.