Game Management and Penalty Calling for Hockey Referees

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Game Management and Penalty Calling for Hockey Referees

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Game management is a term you will hear often repeated, especially as you progress to the higher levels. This is central from the opening puck drop to the final buzzer. A good referee will work to ensure that he or she does not “kill a game” by calling too many penalties, nor letting it get out of hand by letting infractions go. It’s finding that right balance that can be so crucial.

What that often can mean is to set your standard early in a game. You set a standard of play early so that the players can get a sense of what limits they need to play into throughout the game. That way, by the 3rd period they will know what they can and cannot be doing.

This is easier said than done. What I would advise is to not go looking for penalty calls in the sense of trying to find some minor infraction. Call the easy penalties. Find the obvious ones and make sure you get those. The ones that are border line will define your standard for the game. If there is a questionable call early, err on the side of caution and call it.

It’s better that you give a penalty early, even if it results in a powerplay goal, because if it’s early, the teams have the remainder of the game to play. However, if all of a sudden you call a penalty late in a game for something that hasn’t been enforced all night – the teams may react quite intensely.

What teams like more than anything is consistency. While standards can change game to game, you need to do your best to ensure that within a single game, you are extremely consistent.

When we talk about consistency as officials, we tend to talk about the standard that will be met for a game. Every game is different, and as much as referees do their best, sometimes the standard of what will be called will vary game to game. While officials will generally be within a certain level of consistency throughout a season – during games factors will vary. For example, sometimes early in a game, the first penalty may be softer or extremely obvious. Whatever decision is made, it is important to maintain that same level of consistency throughout the game.

Why do we as officials strive to be consistent? At the professional levels it started out of the desire to make sure the same penalties were being called each and every game, regardless of which teams were playing, where the game was being played, the score of the game, and the referees working the game. This desire for having such a standard of consistency was difficult at first because each referee would have their own style and standard – and having them change that to adopt a universal league standard was not easy.

How do we help decide what is and what isn’t a penalty?

To start off – most officials understand that if you called everything that could be considered an infraction during the time it takes to play a game, you could be sending players on a parade to the box. Judgement is what separates a good official from a great one. The best rule of thumb in considering when to call a penalty depends on the situation.

For example, one of the most common types of penalties occurs as a defensive manoeuvre. In these situations, which might consist of hooking, slashing, tripping, or any number of types of infractions, as an official you must look at the result of the action the player has taken. What is the consequence of that player committing that action?

Did a player use his or her stick in a hooking manner that took away a scoring chance? Would the attacking player have gotten a quality shot on net? Did the player trip or slash the player because he lost inside positioning?

If the answer to those above questions is yes – then you have a penalty situation.

Conversely, if there is a slight infraction that occurs away from the play that has no impact on the game, it may be wise to not call it in order to maintain the flow of the game, and to avoid penalizing teams unnecessarily.

However, it is critical that referees understand that you can’t simply make penalty calls based on the result of a play. If a defending player lifts the stick without hooking or makes a clean play and the player being checked stumbles, obviously the referee should understand that it does not mean a penalty occurred. There needs to be a breach of the rules first then you consider the impact that the infraction had on the play.

While, this might seem technical, it is what separates different calibres of officials. You cannot referee simply based on the results of certain plays. Just because an injury occurs won’t mean there is a penalty on the play.

One of the best examples that you see most often is when it comes to body contact or checking. Sometimes you see referees that will only call certain hits because of an injury that occurred. The leagues we officiate often preach the importance of player safety, and certainly it is something that we as referees are responsible for promoting, however that doesn’t mean that we can take the risk out of the game. It is a physical game that requires courage to play.

For example, let’s say a puck is dumped into a corner, and player A is going back to retrieve it. Player B is coming in forechecking. Player A sees player B coming. Player B lands a clean, but strong hit on player A by making shoulder to shoulder contact with the intent of knocking him off the puck. Even though Player A knew the check was coming, he failed to properly prepare himself and instead was positioned weakly when the hit was made. Player A ends up going down injured.

Some referees will instinctively call a penalty. The reality is that just as the player making the hit has a job to make sure that hit is delivered cleanly, so to does the player receiving the hit have a responsibility to protect himself and prepare for the hit. Referees will make the call because there was a big collision and the player getting hit goes down. For many levels of hockey, it can be the “easy” call. The truth is you cannot, and I repeat, cannot, referee based on results like these.

At the same time, you need to look at the cause. Sometimes a player will go down, and you need to be able to distinguish whether for example, he was tripped, either accidentally or intentionally, or it was the player with the puck who lost balance and fell on his own accord. It is impossible as a referee to simply look for a resulting action, without looking at seeing what its cause was.

For example, I recall watching an NHL game several seasons ago where two offensive players were going on a 2-on-1 against a defenseman. The defenseman went down on his stomach to try and take away a passing lane, and in doing so drifted into the lane of the puck carrier – who then tried to jump over the defenseman. In doing this he tripped over the defenseman. The referee did not call a penalty. The coach was irate.

To understand this non-call, you can’t simply look at the result of the action, but the intent. The player went down to take away the passing lane, and the attacking player took it upon himself to jump over that defenseman. You need to understand the intent of the players that are involved.

So, as referees we look at the results of actions that player takes, but in addition it is important to understand the intent behind those actions.

An important component behind this whole process as well is to understand the actions of the player who is on the receiving end of an apparent infraction. As you gain experience as a referee and begin to understand the role of the intent, and subsequent results from offending players, it is also important to be cognisant that the player being hooked, tripped, or whatever type of infraction is not either 1) going down too easy, or 2) embellishing.

As referees we do not want to reward individuals for going down too easy to draw penalties. It is important to have the courage to recognize players that are doing this and to enforce the appropriate penalties for doing so.  This can mean not calling any infraction, calling the embellishment, or calling both the embellishment and the coinciding penalty against the other team.

I would urge caution in doing this, however, as calling both teams does not necessarily punish the team embellishing, but instead leaves the game even. Like a scrum situation where calling matching penalties each time probably won’t stop the scrums, “evening-up” a hook and a dive will not punish that dive.

Of course, this guidance does not necessarily solve issues related to judgement. Each type of penalty and situation will be different. With experience, your knowledge base will grow, and you will be able to look for certain factors.

For example, let’s look at a situation like goaltender interference. This has been a hot-button issue in the NHL over the last several seasons and is currently on the agenda for the General Managers’ meetings. As an official you need to consider where contact occurs – for example was it inside or outside the blue paint? Was the contact initiated by the goaltender or the attacking player? Was contact intentional or incidental? Was the player pushed into the goaltender by the defending player? If that happened, did the attacking player make a good effort to avoid contacting the goalie? These are all factors that come into play when looking at goaltender interference situations.

I can tell you that at the professional levels these questions and answers are well-thought out and detailed. Each official must know the variations of the above questions and whether a goal is allowed, no-goal and no-penalty, or a penalty will be called.

How does this help you? It helps you clarify each specific scenario that might occur, and eliminates the guesswork from these situations, which can often be critical. It also gives you reasoning to allow you to explain a call to a coach or player.

Because these situations are complex, you have to know the rules, and the evolution of the rulebook as discussed earlier in this book. Rules are put into place for a reason – and any official should understand that reasoning firmly. When it comes to goaltender interference situations – ultimately one needs to ask themselves why it exists. At its core, the goaltender needs to be allowed to play his position and to make a save. If a scoring situation occurs, your immediate reaction should be to ask yourself if the goalie was able to play his position. Subsequently the referee should go through the questions that were detailed above.

This is the duty that you have as a referee, to understand these situations that may occur in a game, and to prepare yourself to act accordingly. Of course, you won’t get this knowledge through simply reading the rulebook, but rather through experience. Experience is the greatest teacher, and a referee can learn through going through game situations that require this type of judgement or by asking questions and listening to other referees so that you can benefit from their experience.