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NHL Referees: Can’t live with ’em, can definitely live without them

As we progress further into June there is one thing that has been consistent throughout these 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and that is how often people blame the referee’s for their team losing.  Unfortunately being a referee during May and June is a losing proposition as most fans will spend the entire game cursing your name (perhaps this is why referees don’t have names on the back of their jerseys) when they have the audacity to make a call that goes against your team.  If you make too many calls, then you’re interfering with the game play, if you make too few calls, you’re blind as a bat, although I suspect most fans would prefer the latter to the former.

I remember a lady who sat a few rows down from our season tickets to the Winnipeg Jets (Section 29, Row 4, Seats 1 & 2) who used to hold up and swing for the entire game a Referee doll hanging from a noose and to me that is quite emblematic of the sentiment most fans feel for referees in the NHL.

Now I’m sure fans of both teams feel that the team they support is currently on the losing end of the calls by the referees and could provide many examples of same.  The most recent incident occurred during Game 3, with the Wings up 2-1, when the 4 team crew of referee’s Paul Devorski/Dennis LaRue and linesman Derek Amell/Pierre Racicot missed a 6th Penguin, who was on the ice for 21 seconds.   The outrage from Wings fans was quite intense as Mark Eaton skated between two officials on his way back to the bench.

One Red Wings fan’s response: “I nearly broke into the zoo and punched every zebra in sight!”. 

And its not just the fans who get outtraged as Darren Dreger of TSN has reported the Wings feelings about the non-call:

There are a lot of allegations coming out of the Detroit Red Wings dressing room regarding the ‘too many men non-call’ against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 3. Allegations to the point that there are suggestions Dennis LaRue, who was one of the two veteran referees on the ice, was allegedly yelling at the Penguins players to get off. 

And as with anything, conspiracy theorists began to claim that the NHL had somehow co-ordinated this, so the Penguins would have a good chance of winning Lord Stanley’s Cup and Sidney Crosby would become an even bigger NHL marketing tool.  Do I think this is the case?  No, not at all, but let us look at the numbers throughout the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs to determine if there is any merit to this argument.

In each round of the playoffs, so far, it appears that the Penguins have fared well in terms of calls against:

Round 1



116 total PIM90 total PIM
23.2  PIM/game18 PIM/game

This discrepancy seems quite large but in reality Philadelphia was the most penalized team (#30) during the regular season whereas Pittsburgh was in the middle (#13). 

Round 2



76 total PIM42 total PIM
10.9 PIM/game6 PIM/game

During the regular season Washington was more disciplined than Pittsburgh, finishing 7th overall.  The game that stands out in terms of calls was Game 7 in which Pittsburgh received no penalties and the Capitals had 4, 2 of which Pittsburgh scored during, on way to a 6-2 victory.

Round 3



52 total PIM60 total PIM
13 PIM/game15 PIM/game

Perhaps the most surprising numbers come from this series since the Hurricanes were the least penalized team (#1) during the regular season and averaged just 9.8 PIM/g.

So is it fair to suggest that the Penguins are getting help from the referees or is it that when your team suddenly starts losing, you begin grasping at straws to explain how your team has suddenly proven that they are mortal. 

Now when NHL referee Kelly Sutherland was interviewed by ESPN he said:

Before each game, we study lineups and history to see if there was a fight or a big hit in the last meeting. And when a guy like Sidney Crosby is playing, the other team will do just about anything to stop him. He doesn’t get preferential treatment, but it is something we have to be aware of.

So is it crazy to think that the Penguins are getting preferential treatment or are the officials just being vigilant knowing that if they weren’t, the clutching and grabbing superstars like Crosby, Malkin, Datsyuk and Hossa would be subjected to, would ruin the flow of the game.

And lest you think that conspiracy theories are limited to hockey fans, even the team’s respective newspapers are getting involved. 
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From Puckdaddy

The fact of the matter is that people need to understand that referees make mistakes. They are only human and sometimes have bad games.  Throughout a series it generally evens out.  And sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, the only thing a team can do is play better than the team they face. 

So should we subscribe to a worldview that would suggest that somehow the league is trying to exert control via the referees to influence series?  I’m not sure I’m ready to start drinking that Kool-aid just yet.

As always, sound off in the comments section.