The NHL Needs to Reckon with Its Officiating Problem After Makeup Call Scandal

Abbey MastraccoContributor IMarch 26, 2021

Referee Tim Peel in action during an NHL hockey game between the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Islanders, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021, in Philadelphia. The Flyers won 3-2. (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton)
Derik Hamilton/Associated Press

Tim Peel might be one of the most unpopular referees in the NHL, but he suddenly has plenty of fans in his corner. There has been an outpouring of support from former players and fans alike after the league dismissed the longtime official earlier this week after he got caught on a hot mic saying he wanted to give the Nashville Predators a penalty.

Peel felt he needed to give Nashville a penalty in a Tuesday game against the Red Wings to make up for one called on Detroit in the first period. Matt Duchene added some context to the clip on a radio interview the next day, saying Peel was speaking to Filip Forsberg and the Predators bench in that clip.

The league acted swiftly. 

"Tim Peel's conduct is in direct contraction to the adherence to that cornerstone principle that we demand from our officials and that of our fans, players coaches and all those associated with our game expect and deserve," NHL vice president of hockey operations Colin Campbell said in a statement released Wednesday morning. "There is no justification for his comments no matter the context or intension." 

It's pretty clear what's happening: The league is making an egregious example of Peel, not because it thinks what he did was wrong but because he said the quiet part loud. He admitted to a makeup call and got caught. 

Campbell might say there is no place for that type of officiating in the game, but makeup calls have been a part of officiating for decades. A review written in 2015 by FiveThirtyEight.com's Nate Silver shows as much.

NHL referees play a huge role in game management, probably more so than other professional sports leagues, whether players like it or not. And there are plenty who don't like it. Otherwise, we wouldn't see players screaming at refs for calls that impede plays. Makeup calls are one way they manage games. 

Carlo Colaiacovo @CarloColaiacovo

Good Luck trying to get anyone in hockey to wear a hot mic again. I played my whole career knowing that referees controlled the game and make up calls was a part of it. I never thought this would be the end result. https://t.co/XFAOI3R02Y

Mike Johnson @mike_p_johnson

Many parts to Peel story, with the human element being one of them, but the most important conversation from this has to be WHY?? Why is it accepted that makeup calls are ok, or "game management" is normal? WHY?? that's the change that needs to happen.

The problems with officiating are nothing new for the league, and this incident further highlights that. The game has sped up to a level that many officials can't get out of the way, literally and metaphorically. It's not that the refs are trying to get calls wrong; it's that they aren't set up for success, and it impacts everything from game flow to player safety. 

The 2019 edition of the Stanley Cup playoffs had some all-time bad calls that took the attention away from the play on the ice and put it squarely on the league. The NHL actually apologized to George McPhee, who was the general manager of the Vegas Golden Knights, for blowing a call in a Game 7 against the San Jose Sharks. The officiating took center stage in the Final between the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues, and it shouldn't be the main event in any postseason round, let alone the championship. 

Since then, the NHL has made no meaningful changes in this area. The league expanded video replay and made tweaks to the coaches' challenge rules prior to the 2019-20 season, as well as allowing referees to use replay to self-evaluate major and match penalties. 

But these changes were insufficient and mostly affected coaching. 

Peel's dismissal notwithstanding, it feels like officials aren't being held accountable. Now, nobody is expecting perfection. They're only human. But there are far too many inconsistencies and blatant misses, especially with replay technology the potential solution to a lot of them. 

There is little transparency in the way NHL referees call games. Rarely are the referees made available to the media. There is a way to add some transparency to officiating, and the NHL could look to the NBA and its Last Two Minute Reports to explain why certain calls were made and admit when they were made in error.

The NHL's Department of Player Safety releases reports to the public on suspensions and coaches' challenges, so maybe the NHL should expand on this and release reports on why key calls were made. There is currently no mechanism in place for the people in the situation room in Toronto to communicate with the crew on the ice when a call that greatly affects a game is made in error. 

So what you end up with is exactly what we saw Tuesday night: makeup calls. Miss a call early? Make one up late.

The NHL has an opportunity to shift the culture and bring some badly needed changes to the way games are officiated. Instead of officiating to manage the game, officiate by the rulebook. Instead of this need for an equal number of penalties on each team, call the penalties as they're seen. That way there isn't a soft embellishment penalty called in response to a missed boarding call.

"Imagine the scenario where [the Red Wings] score on the power play, we lose the game and we miss the playoffs by a point," Duchene said Wednesday in his radio interview with Robby Stanley and Joe Rexrode. "I mean, imagine that scenario. ... That's not out of the realm of possibility, right? I don't think there's a place in hockey for that. You've got to call the game."

Peel was set to retire in April, and the language in the release is vague, so it sounds like he will still be able to receive his pension. Maybe it wasn't so much a firing as an early retirement forced by the league, but it's still a tough way to end a career. Peel should have been afforded the opportunity to go out on his own terms. 

The NHL dismissed him without addressing the key issue of how it plans to eliminate this problem moving forward. It's merely putting a Band-Aid on a bigger problem and hoping it goes away. If the league is serious about eliminating makeup calls, then it needs to root out the biggest offenders and hold them accountable, either by dismissing them like they did to Peel or coming up with another punishment, like taking them off playoff assignments. 

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

The Predators ultimately won the game 2-0. It's rare that coach John Hynes will criticize the league or the officiating, and he took the high road when asked about Peel's comments. Hynes has long preached to his teams to control only what they are capable of controlling and being able to win no matter what calls are made. 

"I think the situation is what it is," he said. "I think from our perspective, it probably doesn't matter how I feel about it in general, but the referees are employees of the league, and rather than me comment, I think it's an issue that the league will have to take care of."

However, Hynes added that ideally, things are "fair" for players and teams. 

Things aren't very fair for anyone right now. They aren't fair for players, coaches and teams. And they are very unfair for Peel, whom the league is using as a scapegoat instead of addressing the officiating crisis as a whole.