Are NHL Referees More to Blame Than Brendan Shanahan?

Mike LiebermanContributor IApril 18, 2012

Before Brendan Shanahan gets his say, NHL referees have already let things get out of hand
Before Brendan Shanahan gets his say, NHL referees have already let things get out of handJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

With each passing day in the first round of the NHL playoffs, it seems discipline – or more accurately, the lack of it – has taken center stage. When Raffi Torres blew up Marian Hossa Tuesday night, the clamor about out-of-control play became an uproar.

Much of the blame has been laid at the feet of league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan. He’s been questioned for inconsistent supplementary discipline and the perception that star players like Shea Weber and James Neal enjoy preferential treatment.

The players obviously deserve much of the credit, too. Aaron Asham punched a prone player in the back of the head and Torres led with a shoulder to the jaw, just two examples of men playing without respect for their opponents or the game.

It’s interesting to see that the on-ice officials, particularly the referees, have largely escaped criticism for the mayhem. Officials are always the subject of ridicule, in much the way we complain about taxes and the weather. Their performance and, more importantly, their experience level, warrant some harsher treatment though.

This is perhaps the most inexperienced crop of referees to take the ice for the postseason in years. Based on the roster announced by the NHL before the playoffs, 20% (four out of 20) of the playoff referees had never called a postseason game prior to one week ago. Another 25% of the referees had called 20 or fewer NHL playoff games. Only three of the refs had called more than 80 career playoff games.

This is largely a result of recent retirements by longtime officials. Bill McCreary called it quits last year after 1,700 regular season games and 282 playoff contests. Kerry Fraser (1,828 regular season, 261 postseason) and Dan Marouelli (1,559 and 187) left after the 2009-10 season. Don Koharski (1,719 and 246) went the year before. Terry Gregson (1,427 and 158) was done in 2004. Even Mike McGeough (1,083 and 63) was out in 2008.


For all the criticism levied against referees, veteran officials carry a great deal of respect. (Yes, even Koharski, sans donuts.) Players tend to listen to them in the heat of battle when experienced refs tell them to cool it, even in the playoffs.

Experience also allows veteran officials to recognize when a game can get out of hand. They mete out penalties not only when they’re warranted, but when they know the failure to do so could result in vigilante justice. They have a better idea of what buttons to push and when, where to give players some slack and when to reel them in. Well-timed coincidental minors can quell a situation far more than a handful of misconducts after it explodes. It can be a very delicate balance and in the heat of the playoffs it’s far from foolproof, but it can still be very effective.

With so many inexperienced officials, we’re seeing less control over games. Fans and media have criticized not only the Pittsburgh Penguins for losing their cool on Sunday, but also the officials for not doing a better job of keeping control of the game. The refs who worked the game, Eric Furlatt and Ian Walsh, entered the playoffs with 38 and five career postseason games, respectively.

When Brian Boyle was taking liberties with Erik Karlsson in the opener of the New York Rangers-Ottawa Senators series, referee Dan O’Halloran (74 postseason games) was mentoring Tom Kowal, who was making his playoff debut.

Before Shanahan missed the boat on Weber’s treatment of Henrik Zetterberg, he was given just two minutes for roughing. Even though the game was over, referees Chris Rooney (15 career playoff games) and Frederick L’Ecuyer (0 career playoff games) failed to make a statement and gave the star only a minor.


Then on Tuesday night, Torres sent Hossa to the hospital and escaped without a penalty. Stephen Walkom, with 38 playoff games under his belt, and Ian Walsh, with five postseason games, both missed the call.

Of course, these are just a few isolated incidents which have become flash points in a first round that has seen more than its share of tempers flaring. And this is the postseason, when playing the same team night in and night out can increase the hostilities. But there are more examples of inexperienced officials erring when veteran refs might have been able to calm the situation.

Say what you want about Shanahan, but we’re asking him to clamp a lid on Pandora’s box hours or days after incidents. Perhaps we should be looking closer at the officials, many of who are either too inexperienced or simply incapable of handling the environment of playoff hockey.