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The Extremely Unofficial Fan Guide to Evaluating NHL Officiating

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By request, Erin gives a very high-level overview of how to evaluate calls and referees in general. Spoiler alert: don't try this for Stars games.

Horcoff still can't do that.
Horcoff still can't do that.
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

Of all the things to be passionate about in the world, NHL refereeing is a pretty odd one, especially for a girl from Texas. But hey, everyone's gotta have that one thing, right?

As regular readers know, I'm the de facto NHL rules and officiating expert around these parts, and several people have expressed an interest in getting a greater understanding of how to evaluate individual calls and overall officiating in greater detail. Given it's not quite the end of the worst month on the hockey calender and we still have a few days before we can really dive back into Dallas Stars talk, now seemed like the time to give that mini-presentation.

The biggest question is probably where to start, and that's with a good and thorough understanding of the NHL rulebook (up to and including the infamous Table 18 that covers all the permutations of goalie interference). That's a pretty solid beginning, though it also falls short on many fronts as the rules are incredibly subjective.

Essentially, nearly every single NHL rule covers a spectrum of activity from "technically illegal but they would never call it" to "load the player into a rocket and banish him to Mars." There are also parts of certain rules, charging and interference come immediately to mind, that are unwritten in the NHL manual though may be written down in other places like referee casebooks.

I'm not going to go through the spectrum of calls here because it's quite variable. However, I'll be happy to answer any standards questions in the comments. When I formally reviewed referees, the group I worked with used a 0-100 scale, where a 0 was no hint of infraction at all, a 50 was something that would be called about 50 percent of the time and 100 was so obvious a drunk, blind man at the bar next door could call it.

That group, while just a group of fans, was known and respected by the officiating community, and I remain proud of the work I did with them. I went back and pulled out a pair of playoff reviews I did for that group for examples, which I will link to at the bottom. But we were not looking to see that a referee pairing called everything at 50 or above and nothing at 50 or below. What we wanted to see from a call quality standpoint was that the referee pair picked a level and stuck to it throughout the game.

Just like with players, it's not getting perfection every night as much as it's knowing exactly what you will get every night.

This is complicated by the fact that many refs, Kelly Sutherland being an excellent example, will verbally warn players about actions to set his line in the sand before making a call. So he may let two 60 hooks go and then call the rest all night. A referee generally won't be graded down for that or other things that experienced reviewers understand may be a hallmark of individual style - for instance, some guys will hand out matching minors like candy while others prefer to simply separate and warn.

We also paid a lot of attention to ref skating and positioning, which was part of our criteria because where a ref is standing and what he can see and infer from that angle plays a huge role in what is and is not called. A guy might lose two teeth to a high stick, but if he's slightly behind the play and well off the puck, none of the four officials may see it. And you can't call what you don't see.

You also can't call what you can't see, which is why you have to take into account if the official was screened by the players in front of him (this is where positioning and skating ability have a large impact), and you can also be fooled by the angle from which you see something. A hook that looks like a slam dunk 80 from the side may be a paltry 30 tap from the front. I tried to take both into account and generally wouldn't downgrade an official if he did everything right and still somehow made a weak call.

Because despite what people say, there are almost no true "phantom" calls, where a person with a trained eye cannot see any reason for an official to call a penalty. Most terrible hooking calls involve some motion of the stick that could be interpreted as illegal action. Slashing at the lower levels is highly subject to interpretations about intent and how hard the impact was. Even the non high-sticks are tricky, as the instinctual head snap of the player can often simulate a high stick. The official has mere split seconds of partially screened views, but they almost always see something that at least resembles an illegal action or result.

When evaluating a call as it stands on its own, replays are your friend - you can't argue with evidence that a stick was broken in half by a slash. But you also can't evaluate a ref strictly by the call and replay - if two players skated in front of him at the moment of the slash and the other ref was also screened out, there's no way they can really make that call either. You can't knock the refs' individual performances while still realizing the call was missed.

So now that you know that, how do you know when to scream that the ref is a bum? For starters, at least if you're a regular on this blog, don't attempt to judge the refs who call Stars games. You cannot reasonably evaluate the calls for and against a team you are emotionally invested in as someone new to this aspect of the game, and even experienced reviewers can really only do objective work with plays in isolation.

That means you have to head to YouTube or GameCenter or wherever you might watch your hockey in the summer and pull up a game. Watch a period and note what you see that could potentially be called a penalty. Rate it in your head on a 0-100 scale of how often you see something like that called. Try and figure out the game's call level. Note if the ref gets the puck caught in his feet a lot or if he's always running into or being screened by players. Give him kudos when he's ahead of the play into the zone. See if you can catch him talking to players before or after play.

So then, here are my reviews from back in the day. They hopefully will give you a flavor of what referee reviewers are looking for (and again, we were unofficial but our organizers got word that we were looking at very similar things and were fairly close on most games to what they saw), what makes a good call and a bad call, and even how what seems like a terrible miss can be understandable.

Also, I apologize in advance for the acronyms and general lack of editing in the reviews. I quite literally copied them over as is, only taking out a few things for formatting. Of acronyms I know are in there, PWS is a post-whistle scrum and DCS is don't call.... stuff. I wrote down players as the letter I assigned the team and the number and noted the time of penalties, missed calls, incidents and anything else I noticed.

This first one is from the 2009 playoffs where Brad Watson and Tim Peel called a game between the Wings and Ducks. This features a bad safety miss, some talk about ref positioning and a goal that was not allowed because Watson lost sight of the puck through really not fault of his own.

It's an example of a game with a fairly middling night from the refs that was still fairly done - the call quality was mediocre at best and there was a really bad safety miss, but it did not benefit one team over the other. It also features a misidentified call (called an interference, was a board, guy ended up in the box so it was okay with me) and a good no-call of goalie interference.

The second is a game from the 2010 playoffs where Tim Peel (yeah, him again) and Dan O'Rourke called a game between the Canadiens and Capitals. This was a relatively infamous game in that series as it featured three diving calls, two of them unmatched. It also features a place where I was unsure of how to grade a certain call and asked for input, because again, the rules are clear as mud in places.

Since he's a major player in this game, it's helpful to know that M40 is Ian Lapierre. This was a pretty decently called game even will all the extra fun.

That's a very, very broad overview of a complicated topic. I haven't done an official review game in years, mostly because of time commitments, but I still find refereeing a very interesting and often unappreciated aspect of the game at the NHL level.  When you take a step back and watch a game in which you have no investment with an educated eye, you start to realize just how impossible a job it really is and how good the refs are at what they do.