NHL officiating: After ref’s audio in Red Wings game, a watershed moment?

League fires official over comment caught on audio, but will real change happen?

FILE - Referee Tim Peel is shown during an NHL hockey game between the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Islanders in Philadelphia, in this Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021, file photo. Tim Peel's career as an NHL referee is over after his voice was picked up by a TV microphone saying he wanted to call a penalty against the Nashville Predators. The league on Wednesday, March 24, 2021, announced that Peel no longer will be working NHL games now or in the future. The 54-year-old Peel had already made plans to retire next month.(AP Photo/Derik Hamilton, File) (Derik Hamilton, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Tim Peel was fired from his job because a hot mic exposed the truth about NHL officiating: They do not call the game based on the rulebook while instead “game management” and “makeup calls” control the environment.

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We know this happens, and this is the proof

“It wasn’t much, but I wanted to get a f---ing penalty against Nashville early.” -- that’s the audio from Peel’s mic caught on the Nashville broadcast right before commercial break during the game Tuesday night.

Every single hockey fan, new and old, probably already knew this was the mentality of NHL officiating, but to hear the proof so loud and clearly was shocking nonetheless. How many times have you seen a blatant penalty not get called -- a hit from behind, a cross check in front of the net, a charge, a boarding, a violent slash -- and then watch something much less serious get called at a different time of the game just so the refs could “even up” the power play chances? Probably at least four or five times A GAME. Furthermore, this mentality seems to get WORSE in the playoffs when they “put the whistles away” and “let the boys play.”

It’s complete insanity, and we’ve been trained to accept it as part of the game. But let’s be clear: This is not the officials’ fault. This is the league’s fault. And in Tim Peel’s case, he is being made the example because he failed to remember he had a live mic on him. He is taking the fall for everyone ... and for what, exactly? Should we expect some kind of change? Doubtful.

Years of confusion

The NHL has allowed its officiating crews to disregard the rulebook for years based on how the league wants games to be called. Remember when we emerged from the 2004-05 lockout and the NHL decided it would force the refs to actually call hooking, holding, interference and slashing? Well, suddenly there were games with 15 such penalties and seemingly non-stop power plays.

That was not ideal, and the players didn’t seem to understand how to make the changes. It’s 15 years later and we’re still struggling to understand what, exactly, a penalty really is in this league. You hear Mickey Redmond baffled about it on a nightly basis during Red Wings games. Redmond has been an outspoken critic of the officiating, for better or worse. But whatever he considers to be a penalty or not, he has been begging for at the very least some ounce of consistency.

He’s far from alone. Other former players, broadcasters, coaches, players and fans have been left scratching their heads for nearly two decades now about what the NHL is actually telling its officials to call and why. It’s definitely NOT the rulebook. This much is clear. And then, if you think you might actually understand what will be called from game to game, everything will change again in the post season. It’s like a brand new league with new rules once the playoffs start.

As a former USA Hockey official, I can tell you NHL games are the farthest thing from what the USA Hockey rulebook and training classes instruct officials to do. Charging, boarding and cross checking are three of the most ignored. In fact, if the league actually cared about charging and boarding, players like Tom Wilson probably never would have had a chance to be repeat offenders.

This is a huge problem, clearly. To fix this, we’re talking about a complete overhaul of how officiating is approached and executed in the NHL. I can’t help being extremely skeptical about it based on what has (or has not) happened before, but perhaps the league is facing new pressure to make such changes: Sports betting.

Yes, with gambling in sports at an all-time high thanks to eased laws across North America, consistency in officiating will be an even higher demand when more and more money is on the line.

Maybe this will be the moment the NHL gets serious about officiating. Maybe. Otherwise it’s just the story of one ref losing his job due to carelessness on a hot mic.

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Dave Bartkowiak Jr. is the digital managing editor for ClickOnDetroit.