Whistling Past the Graveyard

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Whistling Past the Graveyard

Gary Bettman woke up the other day, got the milk out, sniffed it, found it had gone sour, then put it back in the ‘frig and hoped it would taste ok tomorrow.

That sounds like the thinking behind the Commish’s latest brainstorm to improve the officiating in the NHL.

This year, he says, the refs are not simply going to enforce the rules. No, says he, this year they are really, really going to enforce the rules.

Yo, dog, queue up the loop tape. Hockey fans heard him promise better officiating a year ago about this time, and the year before that about this time, and … well, just put the milk back and it will be ok tomorrow.

The sad fact is, NHL referees and linesmen as a group have established over the past few years the most disgraceful record for bad calls, missed calls, and blown calls in all of sport.

This year’s magic bullet: Laptop computers. Yep. The Commish is giving every ref a laptop, which may be a bit ambitious, as many of the zebras, it seems, don’t know how to work a whistle.

“All games are going to be watched every night, and we’re going to have the ability to give officials instantaneous critiques of what they did very well and what needs work. We think that accountability and supervision will be a plus,” Bettman told the Associated Press last week.

Huh? Has the league not been watching all along? Turn on the TV, Gary. Instantaneous critiques? Pick up the phone! And if you think accountability and supervision “will be a plus,” Betts, does that mean the league hasn’t been supervising its officials and holding them accountable?

The lapdog from the AP didn’t press the Commish (after all, the establishment hockey press has an image to uphold), but if you ask any fan, the answer to the last is obvious. A few excerpts:

Kerry Fraser – If there was such a penalty as “Obstruction – refereeing”, this perfectly-coiffed goofball would be the primary recipient. Fraser affects the outcome of games.

Terry Gregson – He’ll call a slashing penalty on an accidental tap of the stick to the opponent, then turn a blind eye to someone getting tomahawked right in front of him.

Paul Devorski – If there was a handbook for biased refereeing, this man would be the author. When the NHL wants to affect the outcome of a game, they send Bettman’s buttboy.

Maybe Bettman is serious about supervision and accountability. But it seems unlikely that whatever Andy Van Hellemon, the new director of officials, comes up with, it’s not likely to change the refs’ personalities.

Or maybe the league will fine Devorski for his famous late-game mystery calls. Maybe it will suspend Fraser until he promises to stop making made-up calls. Sure. And maybe the Flyers will call me for advice on the LeClair situation.

Bettman also is betting that the two-ref system, which will be used in all games this year, will improve the game. This isn’t just putting sour milk back in the icebox; this time he’s leaving it on the counter and hoping it will uncurdle.

In its phase-in period, the two-ref system has produced twice as many bad calls per game, including the worst non-call in Stanley Cup history — Brett Hull’s overtime skate-in-the-crease Cup-winning goal in 1999.

“That rule (skate in the crease) was called all year to extremes. Disgraceful. Made the entire league look ridiculous,” wrote WhiteyStarr on About.com’s hockey bulletin board.

The two-ref system fails for so many reasons. It pits one egomaniac against another, which means if Gregson makes a call at one end, you can bet Fraser will make one at the other. And if Dennis LaRue drifts off during a game (but he makes up for with a flurry of pissy little calls upon awakening), is the rookie working with him going to make that boarding call the veteran missed?

The two-ref system has roughly the same effect on big-league hockey that the Designated Hitter has on Major League Baseball. The DH gives one-dimensional players a chance to extend their careers, which the players’ union loves. The two-ref system gives minor-league refs a chance to extend their careers into the bigs.

Which gives us guys like Mike Leggo. Lovely.

Leggo comes to us from the AHL, where he’d lose control of a typical game midway through the first period. He’d miss a call against Team A and know he’d missed it. So he’d make a phantom call against A as soon as possible and, to make up for that, he’d whistle down Team B a minute into A’s penalty. Before A’s penalty expired, though, he’d have to make a real call, resulting on a 4-on-3. By this time, everybody is on him like ugly on an ape, and that would make him mad which, combined with stupid, produced a 5-hour hockey game.

And now this guy is in the NHL. Working with Paul Stewart.

The milk will taste all right tomorrow, right, Betts?

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