Department of Player Safety examines tripping/slew-footing

The National Hockey League’s Department of Player Safety on Wednesday unveiled its “Tripping/Slew-Footing” video, the third in a series of educational videos designed to help players and fans better understand how specific infractions are viewed and evaluated, what is legal and what merits the assessment of Supplemental Discipline.

This is awesome material, because what the NHL is finally starting to do is put the league casebook online.

If there’s a significant difference between the Colin Campbell era and the Brendan Shanahan era in NHL discipline, it’s that Shanahan and the NHL have embraced transparency. I always felt Campbell got a bum rap from many for being arbitrary and I don’t think that was really true, but what Campbell didn’t do a good job on was explaining why he made the decisions he did. Shanahan is changing that in the way he’s disclosing the information and rationale that goes into suspensions and using online video to help explain the situation. You may not agree with his decision, but at least you’re getting a lot more of what went into making it than you got with Campbell. 

Beyond that, we’re now starting to see the publication of casebook material. The game is governed by a rule book, and the official rules of the NHL (and other hockey leagues) have been available for years — I collect them and I have rulebooks going back into the early 40’s. But the way leagues have traditionally helped instruct referees and linesmen is with what’s known as a casebook. This has traditionally been some kind of publication that describes how the league wants the rules interpreted. Sometimes it’s bound and published as a book; sometimes it’s a series of sheets or sections distributed in a binder for easier updating. 

What the casebook tries to do is help the referee interpret the rule. With descriptions and pictures in classic ones, and today increasing use of video samples, casebooks try to define where the edge cases are — if a player does THIS it’s hooking, but if they do THAT it’s not. Since interpretation of a rulebook is subjective even if the words in a rulebook isn’t, the casebook is the guide to where to draw the lines around the rules and when to make the call and when to let it slide. 

They can be fascinating reading. They also are intended to be a living document as special cases or new interpretations happen. The NHL has long updated their casebook on an ongoing basis and distributed memos with clarifications or notes describing specific situations. 

A number of years ago — more than a decade — I had a few conversations with people working in the officiating department of the NHL, and one of the things I encouraged them to consider was publishing their casebook so all fans could (if they wish) learn how the rules are intended to be called.  that won’t stop much the fan griping, but I felt it would help fans become better educated and give them another tool to study the game. 

At the time, there were people in the department who wanted to, but there wasn’t enough support to make it happen. Now there is, for which I take absolutely zero credit — but I did want to call it out and offer credit to the folks at the NHL who are now willing to take this step. If you’re interested in the details of the game, these videos will be a useful tool is learning to watch for them.

One of the things happening at that time was a lot of criticism of the NHL refereeing; I was writing about it a lot then as well, and not always positively. But a number of broadcasters and journalists (people who’s job it was to know how the rules were supposed to operate) were either too lazy to actually learn them (too true in some cases) or had made a conscious choice to criticize based on how they wanted the rules to be written (the, ahem, Don Cherry scenario). Occasionally I’d hear about something that I got wrong, and that led to a discussion about the situation. I felt that having the casebook available would give broadcasters no excuse for being lazy or craven about knowing the rules (I also suggested they look into pre-season seminars on the rules that team broadcasters and journalists could sit in on and ask questions. Again, teaching and transparency. Now, with modern online webinar capabilities, this is even easier to accomplish). 

These days, I think that the broadcasters do a much better job of being balanced and knowing the rules, and I think overall, the reffing in the NHL is better, thanks in large part to the two referee system. It creates some challenges, but it reduces the difficulty of handling the game and makes it easier for the refs to ref it appropriately. Mistakes still occur — refs are human and the game of hockey is by far the hardest game to referee, with perhaps the offsides call of a soccer game at an elite level — but overall, I think NHL refs today do a pretty good job. 

I do think there are steps the league could take to push even further into disclosure and transparency. I don’t expect to ever see these happen, however, but I’d love to see these be implemented:

  • Disclosure of referee and linesman ratings, as well as discipline (fines and suspensions) when issued. Unfortunately, when i’ve brought this up, it hits the wall of this being personnel issues and not wanting to get into disclosure issues over an employee. Of course, the league does so with players suspensions and fines, but that’s negotiated with the PA. Trying to negotiate the same disclosure with the refs union would be tough. (you do know that referees and linesmen are subject to reprimands as well as suspensions? And some leagues (not sure about the NHL) they can be fined in some cases as well. you have to be careful, though, because officials get time off in-season just as teams get extended breaks between games, so just because a referee doesn’t show up in the box scores for a while doesn’t mean he got suspended. And referees get injured and sick, too..)
  • Post game media access for referees and linesmen. Let them sit at the podium and talk about their decisions. Players have to man up and be responsible for what they did on the ice, I think the referees should, too. Not holding my breath. It might get uncomfortable at times; knowing that is something that I expect would make referees more thoughtful about their decisions. And non-decisions. 
  • Get a referee off the ice. While I like the two ref system, at the time I felt a better option would be for the second ref to be off ice and in some kind of elevated viewing position. One ref covers the actions on ice, the other covers the entire ice surface from an “eye in the sky” position, because, frankly, there’s a lot of stuff going on that at ice level with all those bodies moving around is hard to see, even with two sets of eyes. Move one set of eyes above the action, and give them access to video replay and let them be responsible for it instead of the Toronto War Room (unless they want help). And that removes that extra body off the ice again. A minor advantage to this is that refs would end up skating half as many miles per season — so the senior refs would likely go longer before retirement. 
  • And finally, I want to see coaches challenges happen. There seems to finally be some movement in that direction. Video review and challenges and all of that can really screw over the flow of the game (hello, NFL replay…. yawn) — but getting it right and giving the teams some discretion in when it needs to be gotten right is a good idea. The devil is in the details (Hello, NFL Replay, in the 93 variants they’ve tried so far…). What major league baseball does is actually pretty good, but probably doesn’t go quite far enough. What you do NOT want is to screw up the game making sure you get every call right, because we’ll all die of old age before the third period ends. but there are key plays that if you get them wrong, you can destroy the integrity and results of a given game. And for those — find a way to get it right. And what seems to work is giving the coaches a limited right to challenge, and penalize them for being wrong (yes, the NFL Replay mode…. It works).