Sunday, November 14, 2010

Just Get It Right? Not Quite

This was an emotionally taxing weekend to say the least, for everyone involved in the RPI-Union weekend, coaches, players, and fans alike. That should extend as well to the referees involved and, by extension, the league itself.

These games should have been a marquee event for the ECAC the likes of which haven't been seen in some time. It is one thing for two nationally ranked teams to play each other - that happens every weekend in some other leagues, and occasionally in the ECAC as well. In the ECAC, however, that is practically always confined to a single game. This time, it was an entire weekend, played home-and-home, between a pair of teams who are developing a rivalry that is becoming just as intense as some of the storied rivalries around the oldest league in the nation.

But as is quickly becoming the norm - if it hadn't already been the norm for years - the referees ended up taking center stage, especially on Friday night, and it's a shame.

First, the obvious. The call on Friday night against C.J. Lee was ridiculous, and the video seems to show just how ridiculous it was. The reaction displayed by Seth Appert after the game was abnormal for anyone who's seen him weather a tough loss. He was angry, and the video really did make it a justifiable anger. Naturally, the league has not, and will not, commented on the egregious error.

I want to believe that the referees on Saturday night got the call right because O'Grady scored before the green light came on and they knew it. I fear they may have gotten it right for the wrong reasons.
Video shows that Bob St. Lawrence and Eric Ernst got the call right. Marty O'Grady clearly put the puck into the net before the green light came on behind Keith Kincaid. But they should have had the means to double-check that without having to confer with each other and with their linesmen to essentially do a "best guess."

What concerns me the most, however, is the possibility that St. Lawrence and Ernst may have considered the ramifications of disallowing O'Grady's goal. There was already an atmosphere of anger at the Field House even before the game started thanks to the disallowed goal from Friday night. That only ratcheted up in the first period when an apparent goal by Scott Halpern was waved off because the net was off its moorings. Upon video review, the goal doesn't appear to move at all, though the puck did go in off a skate - that of Union's Nolan Julseth-White.

The disallowed Halpern goal definitely made the mood even worse in the Field House. Union's official Twitter feed, live tweeting the game, felt the palpable anger was sufficent to comment on: "RPI fans boo lustily - appears some resentment about last night still lingers." That was a bit of an understatement. Given the two previously disallowed goals and the fever pitch that any late power play, down by one, in a heated rivalry game that's also a special night (Black Saturday) is going to engender, to disallow O'Grady's goal, fairly or not, would have created a dangerous situation inside Houston Field House. That shouldn't have been part of the decision making process, but it's hard to see how it might not have been on the minds of the men making the decision. And it's not entirely fair to St. Lawrence and Ernst - even though they missed the call earlier in the game, they were put in a bad situation by poor decisions by the previous night's crew.

That would be the wrong reason for awarding a goal, even if it may be a prudent reason. But what if it was 0.3 seconds later when the puck had crossed the line, and they had the public safety consideration lurking in the back of their mind? Then they're getting the call wrong for the wrong reason. That's putting the referees in a no-win situation. But again, they were put in that position by the poor actions of others.

The results of this weekend should speed the league's inevitable mandate to have video replay technology at each arena in the ECAC for each game. All RPI needs, really, to have things solid, are cameras over each net. RPI TV already does a fantastic job of getting great angles on their replays - their coverage definitively showed that the Halpern goal should have counted, and that O'Grady's goal was scored before the light came on. The only potenital improvement might be a reverse-angle camera, but I don't know if they've got the equipment or manpower for that. They do a great job with what they've got.

So replay is the first step. The second step is that we're still dealing with referees that are so concerned with not being the ones who decide the games that they're the ones who decide the games. Many of them try to cover for past mistakes by making more calls - the "makeup" calls and the "even-up" calls. RPI ran into this at Harvard, when Daniel Moriarty was whistled late for a hook that took away a scoring chance, and then when the ensuing power play failed, the referees needed any excuse they could find to put Harvard on the power play. In the end it was Chase Polacek being whistled for a phantom interference call that Seth Appert, not usually one to argue penalties after the game, took issue with. But it was always going to happen, whether RPI scored on the Moriarty power play or not. We had a power play, so they had to have one, too. It wasn't a question of whether RPI was going to commit an egregious penalty, the referees would find something that was close enough. It happens all the time.

These "makeup" and "even-up" calls compound previous mistakes made by the referees. Nobody's perfect, but assuming that the referees are unbiased (and they almost certainly are), bad calls are going to go both ways, even at the highest levels. When referees decide to try and pay back the team that got screwed, it only gets worse.

If Paul Stewart wants to do his job right as supervisor of officials, he can start enforcing a league standard of what gets called and what doesn't. There's been a rash lately of RPI fans at the Field House complaining every time an Engineer player hits the ice, looking for a penalty. But it's hard to blame them, because there are referees out there who are making bad calls constantly. Some teams are adjusting their style of play to take advantage, and it's bad for the integrity of the game.

I'm the first person to defend the honor of the referee. They have a tough job - their goal is to skate off the ice after 60 or more minutes and have nobody jawing at them, nobody booing them, and nobody angry at them. The best thing they can hope for is to get a warm handshake from both coaches and a silent departure, because fans don't cheer referees, they only boo them. You've really got to love the game in order to be a referee. But there does come a point where there's got to be a basic level of competence on display, no matter who is on the ice. If you want answers, they're not going to come from the individual referees. It's going to come from Albany.


  1. wonder what would have happened if this was colgate vs. cornell rather than rpi/union

  2. Wholehearted agreement on the need for replay, as long as it doesn't become a huge crutch. (I wouldn't want it to routinely delay the game.) Don't they allow replay in other conferences?

  3. It's not that they don't allow replay. In the ECAC, instant replay is to be used if it is available. RPI only has it during the games televised by Time Warner. However, I do think that some of my colleagues in sections 33 and 44 would have jumped the railing had it been disallowed. Just ask Hansen about the hostility of HFH.

  4. Will, it's not a question of allowing replay. It's a matter of demanding replay be available at all games.


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