The NHL is at a rule enforcement crossroads

The NHL’s issues with “passive officiating”, “game management”, whatever you want to call it, aren’t anything new. Earlier in the season, I wrote about how this style of rule enforcement subconsciously punishes skilled teams like – but not solely including – the Toronto Maple Leafs. In 2019, I noted many of the same patterns and how teams at the pro level could exploit them, and arguably already are.

This is a pattern that I’ve noticed in the league for years, and I’ve been far from the only one. In fact, take this excerpt from Ken Dryden’s “The Game”, arguably hockey’s greatest book:

“In the mid-1970s, the Flyers figured out the system, played it to cynical perfection, and won two consecutive Stanley Cups. Penalized more than anyone else but far less than they might be, with the league as an unintended co-conspirator, they benefited hugely from the informal penalty ceiling and the league’s commitment not to appear to intervene in a game’s outcome. Some years later, the abuses of the Flyers largely gone, more subtle abuses increase. What the league never understood about the Flyers, what it doesn’t understand now, is that it cannot be the passive actor it wishes to be. That like any laissez-faire, non-interventionalist approach, there are consequences predictable and certain that follow for which it is responsible, and by deciding not to intervene it is in fact intervening just as surely on behalf of those consequences. A league, through its referees, sends messages to the game, the players react, the game takes on its form. But what is the message, and what is the form? And what would it be like if the message was different?”

Sounds like a great description of what’s going on today, right? Well, The Game came out in 1983, thirty-eight years ago. I wasn’t even close to being born at that point, we didn’t have the data we do now, and the league’s legends were already cognizant of the problem at hand – one that has only gotten worse as the game has become faster, more physical, more active, and more focused around parity with more people to appease, in the stands, on the benches, and in the front offices.

We’ve had a few moments over the course of this season that have really brought this conversation about how officiating works into the mainstream – most notably Tim Peel’s hot-mic moment and the ensuing fallout – but Sunday night’s Game 4 between the Vegas Golden Knights and the Montreal Canadiens was a great show of what happens when you let “let the teams play”.

In the latest rendition of “a runaway freight train” (a high-end, fast, skilled team with a heavy forecheck and annoying pests) against “a quarter mile of glue” (a physical, defence-first team who suffocates, traps, obstructs, and relies on their counter-attack to succeed), the freight train (in this case, Vegas, but applicable to Tampa as well) eked out a win against the glue (in this case, Montreal, but also applicable to the Islanders). The Canadiens deserves credit for committing to a system and sticking to it, and in a lot of ways, this was the game of the four that they most deserved for their execution, making it all the more ironic that it ended in a loss.

That, of course, is the issue with going for the low scoring game – the underdog playing for the coin toss can often give them more fortune than they deserve, but sometimes it can burn them to. Last night was just that – with the series’ tone now set, the officials were set to “stay out of it”, which led to an absolute gong-show of a final few minutes.

Despite an obstruction-filled game – much slower than many of the first and second round matchups that we’d seen, and more in line with “dead puck” hockey that plagued much of the league in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the officials refused to call a single penalty for 35 minutes. They finally awarded coincidental minors to Tomas Nosek and Shea Weber after the former hit the latter from behind, the latter punched the former in the back of the head and cross checked him when he got back up, and the former slashed the latter – a scrum simply too stupid to avoid, though one that likely should’ve been cut off before it started by whistling down the Nosek hit. Minutes later, they called the first powerplay of the game – a light hook by Nick Suzuki that was technically illegal, but likely not in the top 100 infractions up to that point and not particularly impactful on the play, leaving many confused as to what was being picked and chosen.

But the real moment that seemed to shatter the conversation online and on the air was the one embedded above. In the final seconds of the second period, shortly after Vegas took their even-up penalty, a scrum ensued between Brayden McNabb and Nick Suzuki in front of the Vegas net, including a gloved punch from McNabb. Despite being in clear view of referee Chris Lee, and other players from both teams joining the fray, no penalties were awarded and the play was allowed to continue for nearly 20 seconds, with a whistle finally being blown at the 2.8 second mark – only for Lee to then ask for those seconds to be rolled off the clock to send the game to intermission.

For the rest of the game, which ultimately ended in overtime not a single further penalty was called. The end result of a clutch-and-grab filled, instigation filled, scrum-filled game was a total of two powerplays, and through four games the sum total of opportunities stands at 17 – more than a full powerplay per game under the league average. The Tampa/New York series is similarly under-called with a total of 20 powerplays in four games, nine of which came in Game 2.

While some traditionalists are enjoying this, eager to see the playoffs become even more of a game of “who can survive this crap the longest and get lucky with it” hidden under the false guise of nobility and sacrifice, it seems to me that the tides are changing. More and more people are seeing this for what it is – an appeal to a game once beloved, but not a reflection of the current skill, speed, and talent that we have today.

Officiating a perfect game is impossible, and no one should be expecting that every single moment gets called to the letter. But at a time where the sport has potential to grow between expansion, unprecedented talent, and two huge new TV deals in the United States, there needs to be a serious conversation about whether it’s worth appeasing the past to spite the present. It’s incredibly difficult to pitch an incredible sport to a potential fan when it’s impossible to explain the rules, when highlight plays are cut off because teams are given leeway to slow the game down in illegal fashions, and when star players are put at a disadvantage unlike any in professional sports.

As it stands, the NHL – which sets the tone for all the competitive hockey leagues below it and most of the leagues around it – continues to value a game of discretion which leaves games to chance, keeps them close, and allows them to sell the idea of parity, that can then be explained in hindsight of the values of hard work and determination. But for everyone else, they’re seeing wasted potential, skill more suffocated than the rulebook says it should be, and players physically broken down and unable to deliver the moments that get them into the mainstream because they’re giving and taking more punishment than they’re supposed to be.

For the NHL to make the big leap it wants to with this new generation of talent, viewership, and opportunity, it needs to make clear what it believes hockey to be, and make sure that the players are playing it typically, that’s a goal scoring competition with limits to how you can achieve it and how you can prevent it. The more it loses to the grind and the blind eye, the less likely it will ever be to thrive.

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