NHL Officiating: Why Bad Calls Happen To Good People

There isn’t a night in the National Hockey League season where some fan doesn’t hurl something across the room in frustration at a call made on his or her favorite team.

Dallas Stars fans have gotten a taste of that in the past few games as they have watched their team struggle and pick up what seemed to be less-than-legitimate penalties at crucial portions of the game.

How do such things happen, people wonder. After all, it’s so clear on replay that no such hooking/interference/boarding foul occurred.

Now, I’m not going to say there are never ridiculously bad calls. But there is also a level of culpability on the team and player for the vast majority of calls that get fans’ blood pressure up. And the Stars, in particular, have been a shining example of how poor play can directly lead to weak calls against in the past few days.

So how, exactly, do those calls happen when the most qualified men in the world are calling games?

For purposes of brevity, I’m not going to talk about why referees miss calls in this article, though god knows it might come up later this season. Instead, we’re just going to focus on how "weak" calls happen.

First, an explanation of how penalties are called. Every penalty in the league, save puck over the glass, happens on a continuum. A slash, for instance, can range from incidental contact on the shin pad to an intentional two-hander that breaks someone’s wrist. And something that could be classified as somewhere on a penalty continuum happens nearly every minute of an NHL game.

A referee’s job, then, is to set a level at which a behavior is deemed illegal enough to be penalized and watch for those things. That level can change from game to game since the officiating crews change, but the ideal scenario is for each referee to have a known level and stick with it. Players know the refs well enough to know who is touchy about certain fouls.

Because referees only see each incident for a second or less and often from a less-than-ideal angle with people in the way, they use several cues to determine what is illegal enough. One particularly used for the interference-type calls is the relative position of the players – is one guy beaten and trying to catch up? Another is how illegal does the action itself look – is a stick parallel to the ice? And the final is what apparent impact does that action have – does the fouled player lose the puck or fall? Depending on how blatant the penalty is, sometimes you only need the second to know what happens, but for the majority of mid-level fouls in a game, refs rely on all three.

In the vast majority of cases, weak calls are a combination of all three of these that ends up being less than the whole. A player is beaten and does something that could be deemed as illegal action – lift his stick parallel to the ice, for instance – and the player with the puck shakes his off a light tap or loses the puck. On replay, we can see that the stick barely brushed the glove and wasn’t a true hook or slash. But the referee sees all three indicators of a penalty – beaten player, illegal-looking action and result that benefits the beaten player – and calls the hook. He doesn’t get a replay or multiple angles that we have the luxury of.

What the Stars have fallen victim to lately is they are getting beaten individually time and time again, which puts them in positions to take weak calls more often. And referees are much less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to teams that have been chasing all game, since that creates the impression that they have to resort to illegal action to stop the bleeding.

Take Mark Fistric’s second-period interference call by Mike Hasenfratz from the game against the Florida Panthers. That play had all three things referees look for – a team that was constantly being beaten to loose pucks trying to get a loose puck, an illegal looking action (Fistric wasn’t moving his feet well and glided into the path of an oncoming forward) and a result that benefited the Stars – the Panthers forward fell down and couldn’t forecheck.

Now, on replay, we could all see that Fistric was headed to an area to establish defensive position, the contact itself was fairly minimal and the Panther fell because we was trying to cut around Fistric fairly sharply. But because the play had the hallmarks of a penalty, Hasenfratz raised his arm. It was a weak call because the sum of the parts wasn’t a whole penalty, but the Stars and Fistric had set themselves up for it with their play.

If and when the Stars find the skating legs that carried them through the early parts of the season, I am nearly positive this type of weak call will drop back to its usual level of once every few games. It’s not a coincidence that it’s taken a tremendous uptick in games where the Stars only had a fleeting relationship with the puck.

Finally, the second type of miss usually occurs on safety calls (think boarding, charging, high sticks, anything in the rulebook to prevent injuries), and it’s happened to the Stars twice in three games. When it comes to safety calls, the result can be nearly as important as the action, especially with boarding and high sticking. So if a player snaps his head back and an opponent’s stick was in the area, it’s almost always going to be called a high stick.

This leads to something I call "unfortunate circumstance" penalties, and Krys Barch has taken two in the past three games.

On both of his boarding calls, the player he hit fell awkwardly. In one case, this was because Kris Letang dove like he was trying out for the Olympics. In the other, I’m pretty sure Barch continued to check Ed Jovanovski after the contact with the boards and knocked him backwards.

Now boarding, like high-sticking and, to a lesser extent, elbowing, is a penalty of result. It doesn’t matter how or why you did it, just that you did it, so what referees are trained to watch for is the result only. Until they invent refereeing robots that have the ability to watch several camera angles simultaneously, there’s no way to get these out of the game.

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