The hockey world is aflame with passionate discourse on the Burrows afair. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Burrows made allegations about NHL referee Auger after a game the night of Jan 11 10 between Vancouver and Nashville. Burrows claims the penalties Auger gave him that game were revenge for making Auger look bad in a previous game.
The actions of Auger don’t suprise me at all. I’m pretty confident something is rotten there. But it’s not about that particular call and it’s not about referees taking revenge: It’s about the NHL business having games officiated in such a way as to ensure a certain end. That end, at its most well intentioned, is a more exciting game, something that appeals to traditionally unfavourable markets.
The New NHL is all about more goals. They’ve tailored everything to produce more goals. The rules have changed to produce more goals. The rules have changed to protect skill players over other types of players. Oddly enough, the rules have changed to remove protections for goalies (I’ve seen countless goals scored simply by pushing the goalie with the puck across the goal line). The rules have changed around the crease (remember the foot/crease rule?). And the officiating has changed to produce more goals. I firmly believe this is a mandate from the NHL business. Business wants more goals, so referees manufacture situations to get more goals scored. I’ve seen it time and again. Questionable calls to get the first goal of the game within the first period. Questionable calls to give the losing team a chance to get back in it. Questionable calls to give one last chance to a team to tie it up in the last few minutes of a game.
I’ve written about it before and I’ll say it again: when you see a pile-up in the net and the goalie pushed into the net with five guys on top of him (this actually happened in the ’09 playoffs) and lo and behold they’re reviewing instant replay to see if the puck crossed the goal line! Talk about putting the cart before the horse! There’s ten things wrong before you even look at the puck going across the line!
All of that is not referees acting out on their own. That’s the NHL business “managing” hockey games through officiating to produce a more exciting sport for markets that don’t like seeing low scoring games, even though a 1-0 game is usually cited as the most exciting games to watch.
So, yes, in this case Auger might have been caught red handed. But all the other questionable calls you’ve been noticing these past few years? You’re not going crazy. That’s referees obeying the NHL to keep their jobs.
NHL referees, aside from the rare personal revenge, are massaging games at the behest of the NHL business. That’s the real story. Burrows is just the tip of the ice berg. And that’s why you’re going to see the NHL go into overdrive to ensure the idea of the NHL business massaging games doesn’t gain any credibility on a wide scale. Which is why you’re going to see an overreaction to the Burrows allegations one way or another. Mark my words.
Update: The immediate response from the NHL has been to fine Burrows and do nothing to Auger. We’ll have to see how this plays out in the long run but it looks like this is overreaction by underreaction. By doing nothing, it appears as if the NHL wants the matter to quietly go away. Let’s hope it doesn’t. The NHL business needs something to stir it up and set it right.