NHL vice-president of hockey operations Colin Campbell on Wednesday ended referee Tim Peel’s career months before his scheduled retirement.
During what will prove to be Peel’s last game, he was caught on a hot mic discussing a planned penalty call against the Nashville Predators.
An embarrassing moment for the league and for Peel, undoubtedly. The veteran official was caught saying the silent part out loud, and the league is understandably concerned about the perception of fairness and integrity within the sport. Doubly if we consider the recent adventures in the world of sports betting.
But the fallout from Peel’s withdrawal could end up being the biggest issue for the league. There are two important elements to this discussion – the first being how “fairness in officiating” is judged, and the second being what the league envisions from its officiating teams.
On the first point, let’s be perfectly clear: officiating in the modern NHL is designed to balance penalty calls. The moment you take this path is the moment you begin to lose integrity in the rulebook.
Balancing the fun and flow of the game with good faith officiating is a battle that I think everyone is sympathetic to, but it is obviously ironic for the league to have a formalized rulebook that is only enforced by intermittent.
There are many ways to illustrate this. We can start with a very simple example – consider the first two penalties called in every regular season game this season, without compensation, and the order in which they were called.
Basically, you’d expect a team to have reasonably similar odds of taking a penalty like taking one in multiple iterations. But the first penalty in the game often dictates who gets the second penalty in the game:
It doesn’t matter if a team is at home or away. If your team took the first penalty, you have a more than 60% chance of taking the second penalty, creating an immediate balance. If your team took the first penalty, you have less than a 40 percent chance of taking the second penalty. This is not a sample of data from 10 or 20 years ago – we are talking exclusively about the 2020-2021 season in this dataset.
What becomes evident very quickly is that the theme of officiating in the NHL is balancing penalty calls. Michael Lopez, who has done extraordinary work in this area over the years, has shown a significant side effect. In the event that officials need to make consecutive calls against the same team, the incentive to find a the corresponding neutralizing penalty increases:
Managing the game with balanced penalty calls isn’t a theory, it’s a fact. Previous calls skew what the next call will be, and there is a cumulative effect as the penalties accumulate on one of the two teams.
This brings us to the second and perhaps the most important question. Should we care and has Peel really done something wrong?
This is not a situation where league officials go rogue and just try to make their jobs easier – in fact, I have no doubt that everyone involved is trying to strike the right balance on this issue.
The reality is that this type of game management strategy is tacitly accepted by the league. TSN’s Bob McKenzie highlighted that Peel has not been fired, will continue to be paid and that the NHL may not want to change the policy on how games are refereed.
Following this, TSN Hockey insider Darren Dreger noted that the goalkeepers of the sport are reluctant to marginalize referee judgment as a factor in the sport, a bearish signal for something like increased video review.
To that end, it’s impossible to be frustrated with Peel – the only differentiator between Peel and his fellow officiants is that his comments were made public and the league had to react. But in the absence of Peel, the games no longer work, what will really change?
It seems to me that the management of the game through refereeing is here to stay in the NHL, for better or for worse. There are undoubtedly advantages to this type of approach – the flow of the game can improve and the presumably empty arguments about refereeing bias are reduced.
But it is not without cost. The NHL rulebook seems almost mythological at this point – a general guide to what constitutes a penalty, but not a guide seriously used in practice. And because of this, the integrity of the rulebook is under criticism, as are officials in their futile attempts to enforce the rules on the ice.
This is an extremely complex issue for the league, an issue that will invariably come back to the level of the Board of Governors. Perhaps the answer will always be that implied fairness is the most important factor to maintain. This unfortunately comes at the expense of the rulebook itself, which seems to be heading for a calculation.
Données via FiveThirtyEight, NHL.com, Hockey Reference