Hockey is a sport that is unique in the world of professional sports. Most, but not all, of the unique aspects are positive. One negative aspect is the officiating in the waning minutes of games. For years hockey officials persistently avoided assessing penalties with a game on the line. The NHL didn’t want its officials to “decide the outcome.” The expectation had always been that the referees should back off when a game was on the line and “let the players decide it.” Television comentators, led by Don Cherry, were the worst offenders when it came to encouraging this. Hockey officials were encouraged to alter the standards used to call a game, depending on the circumstances. They had to keep in mind more than just what they saw happen when deciding whether to call a penalty. This made hockey unique and the most difficult sport to officiate.
This doesn’t occur in other sports. When a foul occurs in a basketball game, the commentators don’t criticize the official. They come down on the player who committed the foul. A foul or goaltending is the same in the first quarter as in the fourth. The strike zone doesn’t change when you get to extra innings, and a player is called out or safe without the umpire glancing at the scoreboard. Yet in hockey, when a player hooked or slashed with little time left, the official, not the player, was criticized if the player was sent to the penalty box. And, as usually happens, this officiating practice was (is) followed in the amateur leagues.
When I began officiating hockey I was instructed by a senior referee not call penalties in the last two minutes of a close game. I didn’t agree with the practice, but had heard it many times growing up, and, being a junior ref, decided not to argue with a senior ref. I did call a penalty in the last two minutes of a game, and heard protests and condemnation from the team. “C’mon ref, let’em play!” is a common refrain. Let them play, until no one is standing? Let them play, and kill each other? How far do we go with this argument? And if letting the players decide the outcome is such a good idea, then why have officials at all? The “let the players decide” argument is both stupid and wrong. If a ref makes a call that leads to a powerplay goal early in a game that ends 1-0, that is no different than making the same call in a 4-4 game with three minutes remaining. All penalties, no matter when they are called, have the same potential to affect the final result. Thankfully, the NHL has abandoned this archaic practice, and has got in line with the way the rest of the sports world is officiated. Unfortunately, the practice still lingers in the amateur leagues.