Friday, January 21, 2011

Four Reasons the Coach's Challenge is a Stupid Idea

Think video review would have fixed some of these bad calls? Look how many of these miscalls were the result of video review.

Miscalls happen in hockey. Referees are human, players are jerks, and few calls are an exact science. It's pretty much a Canadian tradition to complain about officiating (ask me about the Canucks-Kings series last year), but in the long run, things tend to even out, and the human factor is a part of the game. We're not all happy with officiating, but I thought we were at least happy to be unhappy some of the time.

Apparently not. Dale Tallon's proposal for a "coach's challenge" is gaining traction, according to TSN's Darren Dreger. That disturbs me.

I'll admit that the idea could fix a problem with hockey that's been a source of much frustration for as long as the game's been around. But it won't. It'll be held back by one small but vital complication:

It's a stupid idea.

Since when is "It works in the NFL" a selling point? The NFL plays a game in which, if a player grabs another player's mask, the offending team's moved back a number of yards. In the NHL, if a player takes exception to another player's behavior, they'll get into a fistfight right there on the ice. And they'll be back on the ice five minutes later. They can get into multiple fistfights in the same game. Penalties and infractions could not be more different for the two sports. No analogy between the two sports is a good selling point for a rule change.

Still, that's not a reason it wouldn't work. Here are four reasons it's a stupid idea:

Limits Referee's Ability to Manage Play

The referee's job is not to call every penalty. Something happens on every other shift that's technically a penalty. Some miscalls are more egregious than others, but in general, each team gets the same amount of leeway. Watch any broadcast and you will hear the words "no call" or "play continues" several times. That's just the way it goes. Referees often just let the teams play.

We don't dislike this. We appreciate the refs who "put the whistles away in the third." Who wants to see their team blow a two-goal lead in the third thanks to some questionable penalties? Who wants to see their team's comeback chance quashed by a momentum-changing penalty?

And the major miscalls, the ones players argue about, are usually evened out. Why do you think players complain to the referees? The ref isn't going to retroactively make a call on a play he missed. Players do it because refs often even it out. Miss an elbow to Kesler's head? Okay, they'll probably miss Edler hauling someone down, as well. Or maybe they'll call a hook they normally wouldn't. Most of the good referees make it work somehow.

What does the coach's challenge do to all this? Well, for starters, it drastically increases the third-period penalties that no one wants. The best use of a coach's challenge will be to overturn a goal, so coaches are unlikely to use it just to get a power play in the first period. Coaches will try to save it for a goal. If they can't get that chance, they'll use it late in the third period to get a power play. Refs "miss" all sorts of infractions in the third, so both coaches will have an opportunity for a late-game power play. That takes power right out of the hands of the referees.

Plus, it makes them look bad, and it's likely they'll just start calling more. Every successful coach's challenge is going to be considered a mistake by the referee, as far as someone's concerned. The refs' only defense is to make the calls themselves. Who wants that? How many unbiased hockey fans just want more penalties called every game, especially in the third? Those fans who complain about every miscall should be careful what they wish for. If this coach's challenge is adopted, they may soon be shouting "Let them PLAY!"

Disallowed Goals Suck

They do. Fans feel cheated, and teams feel frustrated. Sure, you're glad when a goal against your team is disallowed. You're upset when a goal against your team that seems questionable stands up to review. But all loyalties aside, disallowed goals suck, especially when they're disallowed on a technicality. The goaltender dove and drew an interference call. A player nudged another one ten feet away from the goal. Here's a favorite: the referee was reaching for the whistle. Everything just feels so dirty.

If you can only use a coach's challenge once per game, the best place to use it is to disallow a goal. A coach will give his team every chance to win, and if that means finding some technicality on which to challenge, so be it. You think your team scored a goal? They knocked the puck down with a high-stick 30 seconds beforehand, and the play should have been dead. Or, completely unrelated to the goal, someone was interfered with. Minor goaltender interference, a bit of roughing in front of the net, maybe someone got cross-checked... it all boils down to the same thing. More disallowed goals, and of the kind that really turns the stomach.

Sure, there are egregious miscalls that make us mad. That's why the proposal is gaining some traction. But the big mistakes are the exception, not the rule. If you think the coach isn't going to try to find a way to get a goal back, you haven't been paying attention. If the coach's challenge is adopted, every goal that can be disallowed based on a technicality, will be. And that sucks.

Video Review Takes Forever

Sometimes we're sitting around waiting for a full five minutes or more, waiting for the guys in Toronto to be absolutely sure there was a goal. Talk about boring. Talk about a momentum killer. You can't always predict how long they'll take, either, so it's not always safe to go grab another beverage. Video review sucks.

We put up with it because it happens when there are goals. Goals are important, and no team in the NHL averages 4 a game. It doesn't happen often, and for that reason, we understand that the league has to get it right. Fine. Whatever. I'll sit through your five minutes of staring at one or two frames to see if the puck crossed the line, or to see where the puck hit a stick, or whatever.

But don't you dare bring these show-stopping, buzz-killing, momentum-draining snorefests in on non goal-related matters. Did Edler really hold Kopitar up? I don't know. I don't care anymore. Yeah it was a close call, but in the time we've spent waiting for Toronto to decide, the Canucks could have killed off the penalty. And scored a goal. And Henrik could have taken another one.

As I pointed out above, these challenges, when not used to disallow goals for cheap reasons, will probably be saved for late in the third period. In any close game, this is the most exciting part. Know what the most exciting part of the game needs? Five-minute stops in play to decide whether Burrows was pushed or was diving.

Since When Is Video Review Infallible?

Seriously, it's like people all of a sudden have confidence in Gary Bettman and the Toronto front office. It's like they never ever get it wrong. Even this week, we have a clear instance of the NHL front office completely botching a call.

The people doing the video review for the NHL are human, and they make mistakes. They make mistakes all the time. Who expects that adding them to the mix more often is going to make things better? If anything, it means they'll just take longer to be wrong. Know what'll make a bad call less frustrating? Waiting five minutes for it.

The intention behind discussion of a coach's challenge rule is pure enough. GM's are frustrated when the wrong call is made on the ice. They want the game to be better. Still, when the proposal to even discuss a coach's challenge was shot down in November, it was the right call. While it's easy to be mad at one, specific instance where your team gets cheated out of a goal or a power play, perspective shows those instances are nothing compared to the damage such a rule change could do to the game. The NHL exists to entertain fans, and a rule change that makes the game less watchable is always going to be a bad idea.


  1. Buffalo is on the wrong end of too many of those calls.

  2. You forgot a 5th reason:

    If they do adopt it, it will most likely be restricted to goals. Which is stupid because on questionable plays they already review it. So coaches can throw all the flags, sticks, jackets they want onto the ice, but if Toronto screws up (Van/LA in the playoffs, LA/Pho this year, etc) nothing is going to change! Just because they go and look at the video for another 5mins won't reverse a call.

    The reason the rule works for the NFL is because they dont have automatic video review for most of the game.

    Countless times video review in both the NFL and NHL has helped officials correct a bad call on the field/ice the difference is that in the NHL its automatic on close plays in the NFL its on the coaches/booth to initiate the review.

  3. @DaGawdfadda

    Many of the plays discussed for review aren't goal-related, though. For instance, the four-minute double-minor called on Pascal Dupuis for high-sticking. So I doubt the rule would be restricted to goals. That's why they say, "once per game, only."

    Further, they review SOME goal-related instances, but don't use video review, when, say, Dustin Byfuglien pushes a goaltender into the goal with his stick. I just don't feel confident that the NHL is going to get its video reviews right all the time, so why would more of it make the game better?

  4. @Qris Johnson

    So the plan is to allow them to challenge a penalty call? What about a missed penalty call? Why one and not the other? And if there is no stoppage in play how do they challenge it? Can they stop play with the challenge? If they end up calling a penalty on a play that happaned 4mins before do they replay those 4mins? (Dont answer these they are all rhetorical) There are so many issues with reviewing penalties and that is specifically why the NFL does not allow them to be reviewed regardless how bad of a call it may be.

    They should forget trying to get penalty calls right or wrong. It happens to all teams and tends to even out (despite our best attempts to make it look like there is a conspiracy against our team). I think what would help as far as video review would be to allow each team to have a rep in the War Room and during a review each one would have like 2mins to make a case for or against a call. This would do two things: first ensure there is no bias (ala Lombarid vs Murphy, Murphy vs Nucks, etc) and second give the process more transparancy as these reps could explain why certain calls got made. Heck the NHL on its own could release statements regarding decisions on reviews. That way we could have a specific reason to gripe over rather than just assuming stupidity or incompetance.

  5. @DaGawdfadda

    Not to be on the side of Colin Campbell and the war-room guys, but you really think having some weird, biased, rep from a team clucking in his ear all night long is going to make him better? What a pain in the ass, and what a distraction.

    And Campbell does NOT need distractions. This guy barely knows how e-mails work.

  6. @Harrison Mooney


    Maybe they can give this a try?

  7. Excellent article, and very true. No sport in the world has perfect adjudication, and it's even tougher to get it right all the time in fast, physical sports like hockey. But, as you say, it's fast, physical plays that are exciting - not video reviews.

  8. I can agree that Coach's Challenge is a stupid idea because the last thing the NHL needs is more involvement from Ref's. I hate the makeup calls. What is the point of trying fix a mistake by making another one? Look at the San Jose game at the end of the 3rd and overtime. Was either Sammuellson or Boyles penalty really necessary? The NHL is terrible with consistency and that should be an issue that is addressed in my opinion.
    by the way love the site can't get enough...

  9. I am now convinced the NHL is using my suggested method.


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