The NHL is at a crossroads.
Last night, Vancouver Canuck Alexandre Burrows encountered a unique situation with referee Stephane Auger where he was called for two highly-questionable penalties. Two penalties that he said were called intentionally.
''A ref came over to me and he said I made him look bad in Nashville on
the Smithson hit and he said he was going to get me back tonight,''
Burrows said to reporters after the game.
TSN's Bob McKenzie has the remainder of the postgame quotes, but suffice to say there is foul play afoot.
And while this is brewing up to be a major storm between the NHL, Vancouver organization, and officiating union, there is a greater problem that comes to light.
The objective of an NHL referee is to objectively manage a game, not just call penalties. This is a common mis-conception. A referee needs to keep the game moving and encourage even, fair play between the two competitors.
The officials are not supposed to be the stars of the game. They are not supposed to be major influences in the game. Most importantly, they are not supposed to be the deciding factor of an outcome.
Games should be decided by two teams who have equal opportunity to defeat one-another within the confines of the NHL rule book.
How many times in the past decade have we heard the adage, "the key to a winning team is a good power play and a good penalty kill." Or "special teams really made the difference with tonight's victory."
Why is that? Because officials have too much of a presence in the game. If penalties weren't so prevalent and inconsistent, than there would be more focus on 5-on-5 and less need for your special teams to carry you through a game.
Now, if you add personal vendetta's and biased into that mix of inconsistency, you have two on-ice individuals who can dictate a game as they see fit regardless of the competitors.
Is that the nature of the greatest team sport on earth?
When disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy conducted a recent interview, he explained the biases amongst officials in the NBA and their tendencies to officiate based on the teams and players. Everybody discredited him, just as they did Jose Canseco.
An A-Rod, Andy Pettite, and most recently Mark McGwire later, he doesn't seem so outrageous.
While the officials are at fault for looking to become larger than the game itself, the true onus lies with the NHL.
Ridiculous rule changes and additional officials on the ice created nothing more than a micro-managed shell of the game. Perhaps Commissioner Gary Bettman, a former NBA executive, likes how a basketball game stops every two minutes for a foul, but the strength of the NHL is the speed and flow of the game.
All officials do now is prohibit that.
The rules also made officiating unreasonable. If a stick is parallel to the ice it's a hook? If two players smack sticks and one of them breaks, it's slashing?
Let's be realistic here.
When you have players looking around for who did what and throwing their hands up in the to avoid a penalty, the product is not only embarassing, but it is fundamentally wrong.
Everyone wanted to eliminate hooking, holding, clutching, stickwork and general obstruction, but in reality, there were already penalties in place for these infractions.
They were called: hooking, holding, slasing, and interference.
The problem wasn't the penalties, but the poor quality of official who chose to "interpret" penalties rather than call them by the book.
The NHL needs to look at hockey from the late 70's through the 80's for what the on-ice product should look like. One referee. Reasonable penalties. A fast free-flowing game built on both finesse and grit.
Now as soon as you move your hand off of your stick, it's holding, even if the play isn't interrupted.
Hopefully this incident will prompt a re-evaluation by the league and its officiating policies, but in all likelihood, this will just lead to further empowerment of the officiating union and discipline to Burrows for his comments.