We should at least give the NHL points for trying.
There were perceived problems from the owners and general managers about goals being improperly allowed or disallowed. With the advent of more and better cameras, the argument went, shouldn't the league take advantage of those to eliminate as much human error as possible?
So as this season rolled around, the league implemented a coach's challenge system where teams could ask for the officials to review potential offside plays and goalie interference. Risking their team's lone timeout, coaches can now send the referees to the penalty box to look at tiny monitors to use the pretty damn ambiguous criteria to look at goalie review and the incredibly objective standards of offside.
Through just about one-third of the season, two things have become very clear.
The first is that offside is a ridiculously hard call to make real time when it's close, and slowing things down to the millisecond shows that linesmen do miss these on a somewhat-regular basis. That's not a criticism but simply a fact of life in a game reffed by humans.
The other thing we've learned is that the goalie interference review system is pretty awful. It does appear to catch the most obvious of misses (the Justin Abdelkader interference miss that had Dallas Stars fans up in arms last season would have almost surely been spotted), but it's no better than real-time refereeing for the vast majority of other incidents.
Quite simply, the way the NHL has designed the system only encourages more error. Rather than being given a large monitor or even -sized tablet with zoom technology, referees are given what appears to be a 7-inch box to review their handiwork. Beyond looking incredibly bush-league (especially when other professional leagues have outfitted seemingly every sideline staff member with a large tablet), having referees review their own calls is ripe for confirmation bias problems.
First, a quick psychology 101 lesson on confirmation bias. Human beings are wired to interpret new information in a way that reinforces already existing opinions. It affects perception as well as cognition and everything in between. While it certainly can be overcome, it is a powerful influence, especially in the heat of a moment and even more so when you feel some sort of reputation is at stake with the original thought.
People could write books on how this affects sports, from old-school scouting eye tests to correlation-causation errors with statistical analysis. And it clearly has always played a role in refereeing, where confirmation bias plays a huge role in reputation-based calls.
Confirmation bias is also not a criticism. Like being unable to perceive split-second offsides with 100 percent accuracy, it's a part of being human. And for the NHL not to realize this is playing a large role in referees being ill-equipped to judge their own calls is a little mind-boggling.
A great example of apparent confirmation bias occurred in Wednesday's game between the Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins. With the game tied at two and about 10 minutes remaining in the third, Olli Maatta rainbowed a puck over Avs goalie Reto Berra and into the net to break the tie. Here it is in moving pictures:
The play was initially reviewed by the league, likely looking for a high stick. Nothing was found on that Toronto-based review, but Patrick Roy wanted a chat with the referees immediately after, as he spotted Patric Hornqvist shoving Avs defenseman Nick Holden into Berra as the puck was still in the air. The contact caused Berra's head to become briefly entangled with Holden, which prevented him from being able to track the puck.
This was pretty clear goalie interference, something I'd estimate would be called 90 percent of the time by a neutral person seeing the play for the first time. However, the referee looked at the monitor and said he saw no interference, allowing the goal to stand.
Was this confirmation bias? It's impossible to know, but there's a strong case to make for yes. The referee cannot escape his original thoughts on the play, after all, and overturning the call would mean admitting that his original insistence on a good goal was incorrect. It would mean he missed something he was supposed to catch. Upholding the goal, even in the face of the evidence, avoids that embarrassment, and the complex, subconscious psychological mechanism that pushes such motivation is difficult to overcome.
The referee's job was made even harder by the fact that the criteria for overturn is not at all suited for a subjective rule such as goalie interference.
Here is the written standard for coach's challenge reviews, from 78.7:
If a review is not conclusive and/or there is any doubt whatsoever as to whether the call on the ice as correct, the On-Ice Official(s) will be instructed to confirm their original call.
We've demonstrated before what a mess the rule is, and we've discussed the problematic, potentially circular language the league wrote later into rule 78.7 regarding GI. And this type of overturn criteria is inappropriate for GI because it's possible to create doubt about a very obvious play, such as the Penguins goal.
It's possible, the Penguins could argue, that Holden knew Berra wasn't going to find the puck floating above him and so he didn't try hard enough to stay on his feet and allowed himself to become entangled with his goalie, hoping it would negate any potential goal. It's a pretty out-there thought, but just plausible enough that it introduces a bit of doubt, which is, by the letter of the law, all referees need to ignore compelling evidence to the contrary.
(Such a standard is also inconsistent with overturns such as this Oilers no-goal from earlier this season. But that's another issue entirely.)
So, if the NHL insists on continuing to review a subjective call (and I'd argue the merits of that are limited to begin with, but it seems to be the path they've chosen), what can they do to make it better?
Here are three quick fixes.
First, for the rest of this season - Give the referees larger tablets or even an oversized flat-screen monitor to utilize in the review process. There are obviously feeds in the scorer's box - they use monitors as de facto teleprompters for many announcers. At the very least, this improves the optics of the review, both from a professionalism standpoint and a best-opportunity-to-judge standpoint.
Second, after this season - Rewrite the overturn criteria to both make the goal and no-goal standards consistent with each other and eliminate the need for objective overturn criteria as almost no objective criteria exists in the first place. Or make it extremely clear to everyone that this review is only for the most obvious of misses - the Abdelkader criteria, if you will - and not for the majority of controversial calls where doubt always exists.
Third, also after this season and most important - Remove the review process from the referees and give it to an (ideally single) individual in the Toronto war room. A big part of the problem with a subjective call like goalie interference is that if you poll 100 referees, all 100 will see a play a little differently. That subjectivity makes review an absolute crapshoot for teams, since what is overturned and called goalie interference in a Flames-Oilers game bears no resembles to what's allowed to stand as not goalie interference in a Penguins-Avalanche game.
Passing the play off to a designated goalie interference expert also removes the issue of confirmation bias from the equation. An outside individual is not going to have knowledge of the "original" view of the play, nor will that individual be emotionally invested in the outcome of the review, even if just to stave off minor embarrassment. Referees should certainly be allowed to relay their opinions and original view of the play to Toronto, as they are now with questions of when a play was blown dead or if a puck crossed the goal line completely, but they should not have final say unless the rule is completely rewritten and the review criteria becomes objective, like offside.
It's a very messy issue. The NHL has created a group of new problems from a poorly-executed attempt to address an old one.
Frankly, the best path forward is probably for the NHL to follow the old adage of the first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging. But the league seems extremely invested in this hole they're creating. The least they can do is make sure the walls don't collapse on them.