During Pittsburgh's 4-3 win over the New York Rangers this past Saturday, Colton Orr received a five-minute major and a game misconduct for interference on Penguins defenseman Mark Eaton. The call sparked some harsh reactions from the Rangers blogosphere and fan base, while head coach John Tortorella and goalie Henrik Lundqvist spoke out regarding the officiating in general following the game.
It's common to complain about the officiating in any professional sport, but the NHL in particular deals with a confusing and inconsistent disciplinary structure (where a sex joke might get you shelved longer than a hard elbow to the head).
It all prompted us to take a look at the power play/penalty kill differential for every team across the league. But we needed more; we needed some perspective from the league. Luckily, Stephen Walkom, NHL director of officiating, was more than willing to talk it out.
Walkom made his bones as an NHL ref for 15 years, retiring in 2005 to take his current post. In addition to countless regular season games, Walkom officiated the 2002 Olympics, 2004 World Cup, and two Stanley Cup Finals. He's seen a lot on the ice.
The first thing we discussed was Orr's hit on Eaton, and the decision by the on-ice officials to issue a five-minute major and a game misconduct. In case you missed it the first time around, here's the hit:
The Rangers broadcasting team didn't like it, Tortorella definitely didn't like it, and Rangers fans downright hated it. But was it the right call? By definition, yes, it was. According to Walkom, the league added the five-minute major and game misconduct for interference to the rule book a year ago.
Rule 56.4 states: the referee, at his discretion, may assess a major penalty, based on the degree of violence, to a player or goalkeeper guilty of interfering with an opponent.
"In terms of that call, a year ago the general managers decided that in our rule book we always had a minor penalty for interference," said Walkom. "Someone asked the question one day, 'What happens if a player doesn't play the puck, gets hit, and gets injured ... Shouldn't that be a major penalty? And a game misconduct?' So, the major penalty and a game misconduct were added to the rule book last year. It was approved by the competition committee, the board of governors and the general managers first."
According to rule 56.6, once a major penalty is issued for interference that results in the injury of a player, a game misconduct becomes automatic. While there was considerable outrage over the call, Walkom understood why fans -- and players and coaches -- might be surprised to see 15 minutes in penalties and an ejection handed out for what is, normally, a minor infraction.
"The reason it was added was for the rare occasion where a player was interfered with and it was severe enough to injure him. You could call a minor penalty, or a major penalty and a game misconduct," said Walkom. "It doesn't happen very often, but that was one of the cases where it did happen."
"A lot of times you see a guy get a five-minute major for fighting and you say, well, that's a five-minute major for fighting. Or if a guy cuts a guy with a stick it's a double-minor, so everybody knows the rule because it's pretty common," added Walkom. "But a major penalty and a game misconduct for interference where a guy is injured doesn't happen very often, so I think it surprised a lot of people when it was called and they would think of it as an incorrect call, when in fact, it was the correct call."
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When we first wrote on the call, we speculated that the reasoning for the major was primarily due to the fact that Eaton was injured, and were it not for the sizable cut he suffered, it probably would have been the standard minor penalty. We proposed that theory to Walkom, who argued that the injury and hit weren't mutually exclusive.
"He (Eaton) received an injury on the play because of the interference," said Walkom. "In that case the ref can make the judgment to say there's an injury, it's a head injury, it's a five-minute major and a game misconduct. That's what they assessed on the play, and I think for fans watching it's rare that it's seen, and it's something that wasn't normal for them. It's understandable that the fan would go, 'Hey, that's not a rule,' when in fact it is a rule and it was put in just for that reason."
Do Player Reputations Impact A Referee's Decisions?
You've heard it before: Sidney Crosby only gets that call because of who he is. Sean Avery doesn't get that call because of his reputation as a trouble-maker, pest, and agitator. He has a target on his back and the refs are watching him like a hawk.
Following Saturday's game, several Rangers, including Tortorella, Lundqvist and team captain Chris Drury, all spoke out about the treatment Avery has received since returning to the Rangers in early March.
Here's what Tortorella had to say, from Steve Zipay of Newsday:
"I'm the first one to say that Sean makes his own bed with some of the things that happened, but I think he's done his penance here," Tortorella said. "All I want is, I hope he's given a fair shake. He does something stupid on the ice, give him a penalty. If it warrants him getting kicked out the game, kick him out. The way he's trying to concentrate on the game, and the way he's trying to play, I hope he gets treated fairly."Drury later added that he feels Avery is a marked man, and that he has "played extremely hard and clean since he's been back."
As Jeff Z. Klein of the New York Times pointed out -- via Dirk Hoag of On The Forecheck -- Avery has actually drawn more penalties than he's been called for since returning to the Rangers, a fact that seems to shoot a gigantic hole in the "marked man" argument being made by the Rangers. In Monday's 3-0 win over New Jersey, for example, Avery was a constant thorn in the side of the Devils, helping the Rangers earn two power plays in the third period.
When asked about comments such as Tortorella's and Drury's, Walkom insisted that the league's officials are conditioned to be objective.
"I think every coach stands up for his players, just like he should," said Walkom. "I would expect all coaches to stand up for their players. But, I can assure you that if you watch a game down low our guys are just reacting within the game to what they see at high speed. Not in slow motion, not on replay. You really don't have time to worry about personalities. You're just judging whether it's a foul or infraction, or not a foul or infraction. Our guys are conditioned to be objective and understand there are emotions in the game. There's emotions from coaches, there's emotions from players, and that's what makes our game so great."
"If any player, let's say Daniel Briere, gets high-sticked in the head, you're reacting to the high-stick, not that it's Daniel Briere getting high-sticked. That's all you're judging on the play. You're making probably thousands of decisions in a game, all relative to whether or not a foul is being committed, and you're doing it at high speed. I think often we watch television and we think the official is watching in slow motion and watching replays. He's not. He doesn't have that luxury."
Hits To The Head
Hits to the head have been a hot-button topic in the NHL this season. In recent weeks, we've seen Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin have a disciplinary hearing with the league as a result of his hit on Los Angeles' Wayne Simmonds, while Chicago's Ben Eager was issued a three-game suspension for his hit on Edmonton's Liam Reddox.
"I think if you go back seven or eight years, obstruction was the key word in the game," said Walkom. "It was talked about an awful lot and it was applied to every element in the game from hooking, to holding, to interference, and it was sort of the buzz word that encompassed everything."
"I think with head shots, a big part of our rule book relates to head shots, whether it be elbowing, whether it be high-sticking, whether it be boarding, whether it be hitting from behind, whether it be fighting. Every one of those penalties are penalties for head shots to some degree. I think the league has always been very conscious of protecting players heads in the game, and it has a lot of rules in the rule book to allow that."
That said, there's no statistical, objective evidence to show officials are biased toward any one individual team or unfairly targeting individual players. As always, it simply comes down to some teams being more disciplined than others.