A Modestly Proposed Plan to Save Hockey From the NHL (and to save the NHL from itself)
The National Hockey League is an organization in crisis. The league owners have a tremendous product that they seemingly are trying to suffocate out of existence, implausibly following the examples of Major League Baseball and boxing.
We will explore in the coming days various ways in which the NHL can reinvigorate its game and boldly march into the 21st Century.
DISCLAIMER: the author is a forward-thinking genius and is not looking for incremental change, like the current tinkering with Rule 48 which governs illegal hits to the head. Instead, he proposes to dramatically alter the game to make it safer and more enjoyable for the players and more spectacular for the fans.
CAVEAT: when the cash registers of the League are swollen from skyrocketing revenues due to these changes being adopted, the author will be enjoining the League to provide him with a mutually-acceptable percentage of said revenues.
Proposal #2: INSTITUTE A VIDEO REFEREE SYSTEM
The speed of the game has grown to the point where the on-ice officials have trouble keeping up with the flow of the game. Also, the level of nastiness and cheap-shottery has grown to an intolerable level.
Talented players like Daniel Sedin are being encouraged by hockey experts to commit infractions such as slashing and spearing to ‘stand up for themselves. Other talented players like Brad Marchand are finding it advantageous to commit infractions, knowing they will not suffer any consequences, and thus cheapen the quality of their game.
The on-ice referees too often miss serious infractions, due to the speed of the game or their vantage point. Sometimes they hesitate to call an infraction because they are not sure if what they observed was a well-deserved retaliation.
By any analysis, the referees need help. Be it hereby resolved that:
1) Linesmen can now whistle the play dead and call a penalty when they see an infraction.
2) Another referee will be located in the press box or similar location, with access to the video feed. This referee will be able to review the play on video and determine if an infraction has been committed and a penalty is warranted. He can either whistle the play dead, by communicating with an on-ice official, or review a particular play during stoppages. He can also act as a resource to confer with on-ice officials who have called penalties.
There will be many objections to this proposal, most by those who believe that hockey is fine as it is, the Don Cherrys and Mike Milburys of the world, but these changes are being made to propel hockey forward and make it the most spectacular spectator sport in the world. As such, these objections should not outweigh the benefit of showcasing the Ovechkins and the Crosbys.
One objection will be that we’ve already made a change in that direction with the introduction of the second on-ice referee, and that there will now be too many refs who may contradict each other on calls. We might want to remove one of these referee from the ice, and it might serve to make the ice less crowded. The over-riding concern, however, would be to ensure that the officials get the vast majority of calls right, and liven the pace and flow of the game, and the officials would be encouraged to work together instead of protecting their turf.
Another concern will be that it will slow down the game, with constant whistles and penalties being called. Also, the time spent on video review will also prolong the game. In fact, the game will speed up, because all the scrums and scuffles after the whistle will stop since there will now be repercussions to illegal acts. The tiresome pushing and crosschecking in front of the net once the play is dead will no longer occur. While there may be a slew of penalties called once this change is made, the players, coaches and GM’s would quickly adapt and this situation would resolve itself quickly, as we saw when in 2005 with the crackdown on obstruction.
An advantage of instituting video referees is that it will eliminate ‘diving’ immediately. While it can be difficult to call live, diving is painfully apparent in slow-mo, and the culprits will be caught every time. Furthermore, the need to dive will disappear, since the refs will be on top of the slashing and cross-checking and tripping and whatever else.
At the dawn of the 20th century, it made sense to imbue the referee with an unquestioned authority to call penalties, as it was the only practical solution at the time. All other sports adopted this practice, but as times change sports must evolve. Rugby, for example, used to have only one referee on the pitch to control a violent game played by two teams of fifteen. Eventually, the touch judges were given the responsibility to bring grave fouls to the referee’s attention. This change was reasonable and allowed for a safer game for all players, since cheap shots out of the ref’s field of view were more likely to be called.
Hockey is an even faster game, and the NHL has the technical capacity to institute video referees. To do so will improve the product and protect the players.