On Wednesday, NHL vice-president of hockey operations Colin Campbell ended the career of referee Tim Peel months before his scheduled retirement.
During what would prove to be Peel’s final 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, unquestionably. The veteran official was caught saying the quiet part out loud, and the league is understandably concerned about the perception of fairness and integrity within the sport. Doubly so considering recent ventures into the world of sports betting.
But the aftermath of Peel’s removal may end up being the bigger issue for the league. There are two important pieces to this discussion – the first being how “fairness in officiating” is adjudicated, and the second being what the league envisions from its officiating teams.
On the first point, let’s be perfectly clear: NHL officiating in the modern era is set up to balance penalty calls. The moment you go down that path is the moment you start to lose integrity in the rule book.
Balancing entertainment and game flow with good-faith officiating is a battle I think everyone is sympathetic to, but it is obviously paradoxical for the league to have a formalized rule book that is only intermittently enforced.
There are plenty of 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, non-offsetting, and the order in which they were called.
Broadly, you would expect a team to have reasonably similar odds at drawing a penalty as taking one over many iterations. But the first penalty of the game frequently dictates who gets the second penalty of the game:
It matters not whether a team is home or away. If your team drew the first penalty, you have a greater than 60 per cent chance at taking the second penalty, creating immediate balancing. If your team took the first penalty, you have a less than 40 per cent chance at drawing the second penalty. This is not a sampling of data from 10 or 20 years ago – we are talking exclusively about the 2020-21 season in this data set.
What becomes apparent very quickly is that the theme of NHL officiating is to balance out penalty calls. Michael Lopez, who has done extraordinary work in this area over the years, showed an important secondary effect. In the event officials have to make consecutive calls against the same team, the incentive to find a corresponding neutralizing penalty increases:
Game management through balanced penalty calls is not theory, it is fact. Previous calls bias what the next call will be, and there is a compounding effect as penalties accumulate on one of the two teams.
That brings us to the second, and perhaps more important question. Should we care, and did Peel really do anything wrong?
This is not a situation of league officials going rogue and merely trying to make their job easier – in fact, I have no doubt that everyone involved is trying to strike the right balance on this issue.
The reality is this type of game management strategy is tacitly accepted by the league. TSN’s Bob McKenzie pointed out that Peel was not fired, will still continue to be paid, and that the NHL may not have an appetite for changing policy on how games are officiated.
Following onto that, TSN Hockey Insider Darren Dreger noted that the caretakers of the sport are reticent to marginalize officiating 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 differentiating factor between Peel and his officiating colleagues is that his comments went public, and the league had to react. But absent Peel no longer working games, what really will change?
It seems to me that game management through officiating is here to stay in the NHL, for better or worse. There are no doubt benefits to this type of approach – game flow may improve, and plausibly empty arguments about officiating bias are reduced.
But it’s not without cost. The NHL rule book almost feels mythological at this point – a general guide to what constitutes a penalty, but not one seriously employed in practice. And because of that, the integrity of the rule book comes under fire, and so too do the officials in their futile attempts to enforce the rules on the ice.
This is a highly complex problem for the league, one that will invariably rise again to the Board of Governors level. Maybe the answer will still be that implied fairness is the single most important factor to maintain. It’s unfortunately coming at the cost of the rule book itself, which seems headed for a reckoning.
Data via FiveThirtyEight, NHL.com, Hockey Reference