Men in Black (and White)
Two Referees: Beneficial or Cluttering the Ice?
by Gregg Paul/CHN Reporter
Now that the NCAA has allowed leagues to experiment with the two referee/two linemen system for college hockey, there is talk this could be implemented NCAA-wide in the not too distant future.
In theory — with the players getting bigger, stronger, and faster — another set of eyes on the ice can help clean up the game, an impetus that begin with the rules emphasis of three years ago.
Yet with every sweeping change there lies controversy, and many questions to be raised.
"I do not see any cons to the system," said Luke Galvin, the first-year director of officials for the ECAC. "As an officiating system it allows the referees to cover both sides of the action, meaning, their sight lines are greatly enhanced and the viewing angles are more numerous. (This allows) more visibility, greater coverage and a more complete view of the action and the game. This further puts the responsibility on the players to play within the rules as infractions are more likely to be viewed with more angles and sight-lines."
Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna also espoused the benefits of the system.
"This system has a number of benefits," Bertagna said. "Each ref has only half the ice to cover and the extra set of eyes will deter players from committing fouls. Also, the linesmen can focus on line calls only, having had the duty of calling penalties taken away. And finally, as an administrator, I like the fact that this system will allow me to keep an older, experienced ref a little longer and move a younger ref up faster."
Criticism of the system, from fans and some coaches, in the past has centered on the logistical difficulty two referee have with working together. It has often led to inconsistent calls, with one official calling a game on way and another calling it the other way. And there are questions with whether there are enough quality referees at this level — is adding a sub-par referee better than having just one?
As expected, other cons revolve around monetary issues.
"The only con is the big money it is going to cost each team," said WCHA director of officials Greg Shepherd. "Money is tight and I can see their point. The WCHA has to fly most of the places where the other leagues drive."
Administrators seem to be in agreement, however, on the usefulness of a two-referee system. There is a difference of opinion as to how to implement this system, such as what area the officials will cover.
"There is no specific area covered. The two referees cover the entire ice area together as a team," said Galvin.
Bertagna simply said, "His half of the ice."
Shepherd put a different spin on the situation.
"The whole ice is their area," said Shepherd. "The only way that this system will work is that both refs work together, even though a ref comes from the end of the rink to center ice, if a penalty is not called in the zone where the other ref is the outside ref. He must make that call otherwise the system will fail. That was the biggest complaint when the two ref one linesman system was used. The refs would not call penalties in front of the other ref. If we go to the (two ref/two linesmen) system, we have to make it work."
That scenario — where a play that appears to be right in front of a referee goes uncalled by that referee, but is called by the referee on the opposite side of the ice — is certainly one that infuriates the fans, and causes confusion among players and coaches.
But that is, perhaps, an unfair description of events, and, thus, an unfair criticism.
"Simply, it is not about distance," Galvin said. "It is about angles and sight-lines. Sometimes the referee with the opposite angle simply has a better view and better sight-line to make a call."
"Usually, one ref doesn't 'overrule' another," said Bertagna. "He makes a call when he senses the other ref didn't see it as clearly as he did."
The referee system currently in place allows the linesmen, or "Assistant Referees," to call any penalties not observed by the referee (major penalties, minor penalties behind the play and flagrant minor penalties). That would change.
"They will only call the too many men call, I imagine, as they did before they became Assistant Refs in the current system," Bertagna said.
Calling it Differently
Nevertheless, there are perceptions out there now that would probably remain — particularly, that each conference calls a different style of game. This perception is intensified during inter-conference games during the regular season, and can be magnified during the NCAA tournament.
"All of the conferences work hard to enforce the NCAA Rules to the same level, especially since 2004 when the NCAA set out the enhanced rules memo regarding restraining fouls in order to return skating, skill and physical play to the game," Galvin said. "That there may be some difference from conference to conference enhances the need for continued diligence in bringing them all to as similar level of rules enforcement as possible."
Said Bertagna, "I don't believe this is as much the case now as it once was. Each league has refs with different ways of calling a game, but I believe all the leagues embrace the same directive issued by the NCAA."
Shepherd, though, whose league has often been most singled out for calling it the most lenient, sees it differently.
"Conferences do call the game different," Shepherd said. "I think all the conferences are on the same page, that is, like refs, they all don't call the game the same — (it's) a little different but look at the end of the year and all are real close in all the calls."
Then there are the situational differences, where star players get lenient treatment, or late-game calls aren't made.
"Last year we tried to eliminate situational standards," Bertagna said. "We made some progress but not enough. We tell a ref, 'Know what a penalty is ... and when you see it call it, regardless of circumstances or the situation.'"
"A penalty is a penalty no matter what time of game or who the player is, every player is just is good as the other," Shepherd said.
From the talk among administrators, it seems inevitable the two-referee/two-linesmen system will ultimately be put into practice. In theory, based on the comments of the officials involved, there is a plan in place for everyone being on the same page and calling the games the same way. However, when you add the human element, you open up another can of worms that is sure to be controversial.
It is said that the best refereed games are the ones where you do not even notice the referees are there. Hopefully this will still be possible, when there are more of them out there to notice.