In Game 3 of the Western Conference Final, just about everyone in the world saw San Jose Sharks forward Timo Meier bat the puck with his hand to teammate Gustav Nyquist in the offensive zone. Nyquist then passed the puck over to Erik Karlsson who scored the overtime winner. It was a goal that never should have counted because of the obvious hand pass.
The St. Louis Blues players saw it, the fans saw it, everyone at home saw it. Heck, even the NHL saw it, as Meier was credited with an assist on the play.
The only four people who did not see it, however, were the four people who mattered most. Both referees and linesmen missed it and no hand pass was called.
The hand pass was obvious after watching the replay, but per NHL rules, hand passes are not reviewable. The goal stood and the Sharks won what felt like a tainted game.
Officiating and video review have become a major topic of conversation during the 2019 postseason after several botched calls on the ice that could have easily been overturned upon review. No one wants to see the game slowed down by multiple lengthy reviews, but this postseason is a clear indication that more video review is needed. When referees are making series-altering decisions that anyone can see from a quick replay is incorrect, that’s a problem.
In the wake of the controversies we have seen this postseason, there are bound to be many suggestions over how the NHL can expand video replay to get this right. The problem with every suggestion – and the reason many detractors do not want to see video review expanded – is the fear of unintended consequences.
The offside review, for example, was prompted by a goal scored by Matt Duchene in 2013 in which he was at least 10 feet offside. The rule was implemented to prevent plays like this. Instead, now goals are broken down frame by frame, pixel by pixel to see if a player’s skate may have been over the blue line even if that player had nothing to do with the play. Just ask the Colorado Avalanche, who had a game-tying goal in Game 7 of the second round this year erased because Gabriel Landeskog was headed for a line change and took too long to get on the bench.
The fear over slowing the game down and unintended consequences are legitimate, but they cannot be an excuse to not help the officials. Instead, the NHL has to find a system that limits reviews to catch the egregious mistakes that are more black and white.
Luckily for the NHL, there is a sport that has a rule like this already in practice.
Most Americans do not follow soccer all that closely, but FIFA has had a videa assistant referee system (VAR) for years now. It was implemented for the 2018 World Cup and there is no bigger stage in world sports than the FIFA World Cup.
How does it work?
Each game has a video assistant referee who reviews calls made by the referee during the game. There are only four types of incidents that can be reviewed: goals, penalty decisions (meaning specifically penalty kick decisions), red card decisions and mistaken identity (if the wrong player is given a red or yellow card). While these rules limit what can and cannot be reviewed, they are also broad enough to encompass all significant instances of a game.
A similar system can be implemented in hockey that will eliminate what we all most want taken out of the game: egregious officiating mistakes.
Let’s say, for example, the NHL stipulates that every scoring play, major penalty and perhaps some of the more black and white minor penalty calls such as delay of game are now reviewable. First off, this system takes reviews out of the hands of the coaches. Coaches should not be in charge of whether or not a game is officiated correctly and a bad call should not be allowed to stand just because a coach does not have a challenge. Second, making all goals reviewable for any reason would allow for the easy denial of plays like Duchene’s obvious offside goal or the missed hand pass on Meier. That is what a VAR would be looking for, not if a player’s skate was a millimeter offside.
The insane standard to which offside is now called based on the offside challenge would essentially be gone if you stipulate in the rules that a VAR in hockey would have until the puck drops to notify the referee of a review. That would only allow for the VAR to watch for the more obvious calls. Third, if all you are looking for are the obvious calls, none of these reviews should take much time at all. Fourth, this would not take the human element out of the game. Referees must make subjective calls throughout the course of the game. The VAR is not there to argue if something is a soft call, he is there to inform the referee of the possibility that he just got a call flat out wrong.
By leaving situations in which plays can be reviewed as broad while also keeping the time in which a review can be called rather short, this would ensure only the really bad calls are fixed. In the end, that should be the goal.
The NHL desperately needs a video review system in place that can better help the referees. If the whole world can see Meier’s hand pass, the people with the ability to make the call should too. Yes, expanding review can open a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences, but soccer’s system has had success in both limiting bad mistakes by officials without overly slowing down the game. They have shown it is possible and have provided a blueprint in which the NHL desperately needs to follow.
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