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Don’t Just “Let Them Play” - How NHL Playoff Refereeing is Bad for the Sport

On the cusp of the Stanley Cup Finals, refs and the NHL need to make calls worthy of the greatest trophy in sports.

Winnipeg Jets v Vegas Golden Knights - Game Three Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

I’ve heard this same phrase repeated throughout the playoffs this season - “the refs let them play” and “the League doesn’t want to be the deciding factor in a series”, as if hockey is better off when goonery runs rampant. As if viewers appreciate the game more when there are fewer stoppages for penalties. As if an unwillingness to enforce the rules is something to be celebrated. It absolutely shouldn’t be.

By making a call, refs are actually NOT affecting or deciding the game. They are enforcing the written and agreed-upon rules of hockey, allowing the game to play out and progress as it is meant to. Failure to properly call penalties improperly alters the course of a game, subverting the rules and the trust players have that penalties will be called in accordance with standards set forth during the regular season.

This shifting standard, from “regular season mode” to “playoffs lawlessness” is a big problem. Not only does it lead to confusion for players, often to the benefit of those willing to embrace a more “not quite within the rules” style of play over more skilled and disciplined players, but it also leads to confusion and frustration with fans - how are we supposed to appreciate the game when, suddenly, we don’t know the rules anymore? How many new fans can the League attract during its playoff run when seasoned fans and broadcasters can no longer accurately explain calls to newcomers?

What are refs afraid of - that we might have a few more minutes of exciting special teams play? That they’ll be blamed and harassed by fans for making “ticky-tack“ calls? Consistency in calling standards should address both of those concerns. When calls are consistent, players can easily recognize what’s a legal move and what isn’t and should keep special teams play to a minimum (since that seems to be what the NHL wants in the playoffs). And when calls are consistent, fans are less frustrated by calls against their team than when they can say “you let that other bozo get away with the same thing 5 minutes ago!”

For anyone who’s forgotten how it feels to be on the wrong end of the shifting referee and League standards, just remember our last trip to the Finals. In 2009, the refs and the NHL didn’t want to be the deciding factor in a series either. Then, Colin Campbell rescinded the automatic suspension of Evgeny Malkin for instigating/3rd-man-in under the guise that Malkin wasn’t trying to “send a message”. On-ice refs also warned Pittsburgh that they were about to be called for Too Many Men after a good 20 seconds with an extra man, and allowed a Pittsburgh player to pick up a broken stick in addition to his own and use it during play; neither of these should be discretionary calls.

Anyone looking for more recent evidence of rules being ignored than nigh-on a decade ago doesn’t have to look far. At Vice Sports, Dave Lozo levies some of these same criticisms against the NHL and its refs during the Pittsburgh/Washington series only a few short weeks ago.

If the NHL really wants to avoid being blamed for game outcomes, then they and the refs need to make a return to calling penalties instead of swallowing their whistles and allowing games to devolve into contests of enduring more and more punishment. If I wanted to watch something where there aren’t rules that apply to everyone, I’ll watch politics. But that’s not what any of us want - we are here to watch hockey, penalties and all. On the cusp of the NHL’s greatest stage, the rules need to matter.