The Tim Peel Incident Could Cause a Clamp Down on Officiating For Parity

Tim Peel
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The NHL’s perpetual pursuit of parity has finally backfired. Well, at least it has on Tim Peel.

On Wednesday, the league relieved referee Peel of his duties for blatantly admitting his ongoing intention to penalize the Nashville Predators. His on-ice remarks were picked up by a hot mic during the TV broadcast of Nashville’s game against the Detroit Red Wings.

On the face of it, Peel’s removal seems like the appropriate response from the league. After all, there is surely no place in the sport for an official who purposely discriminates against one team.

But the greater context around this situation is that it happens all the time in hockey.

Often, referees will seek out a reason to award a penalty against one team in order to offset one they had previously given to their opponents; it is all to ensure that some form of pseudo-equality exists within the game.

However, given the swift action taken by the league to remove Tim Peel, will we see further changes regarding how the game is officiated moving forward?

Tim Peel Make-Up Call Incident

“..I didn’t know if you were calling something different…”

“It wasn’t much, …”

“Yeah, I know…”

“… but I wanted to get a f**kin’ penalty against Nashville early in the… ”

This is part of a conversation Tim Peel was having during Tuesday’s game between the Predators and Red Wings. It was captured by a hot mic and inadvertently played during the game’s broadcast. Although the discussion was interrupted mid-sentence as Fox Sports cut to a scheduled commercial break.

The idea behind Peel’s reasoning was that he wanted to enforce a make-up call against the Predators since they had already scored a powerplay goal in the first period. In other words, he was looking to award Detroit with a powerplay in order to level the playing field at one penalty apiece for each team.

What is so infuriating about this moment is that there is a clear understanding during this conversation that a “set-the-record-straight” call is an acceptable practice. As the ‘Locked on Predators’ podcast co-host Matt Best tweeted, the referee clearly altered the way he officiated in order to counter-balance the call made from before.

NHL Referees All Use Make-Up Calls

It is important to state, however, that make-up calls are not a new phenomenon. They happen on a nightly basis and are a way of ensuring that all teams get their “fair share” of penalties. This practice eliminates significant disparity between team’s penalty totals which would be considered controversial, especially if it became the main factor behind the final result.

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The table above, produced by Money Puck, shows the average number of penalty minutes taken and drawn by each team. As you can see, there is a clear diagonal line of best fit which exhibits a positive linear relationship between penalties awarded and conceded. Put simply, the more penalties one team draws, the more it tends to concede.

Naturally, there are some outliers but the overall trend indicates that teams nearly equal out time on the powerplay and penalty kill. Why? Because the referees manage games more than they officiate them. What we are seeing is that the relationship in this table proves there is a degree of truth behind make-up calls and how referees tend to even up the penalties between two teams throughout the contest.

Tim Peel and Referees To Blame?

Does the blame for this trend fall entirely on Tim Peel and by extension referees, in general? Not at all. In fact, the hot-mic incident speaks more to the systemic attitude of the league that deploys these officials.

Ultimately it is the NHL, who lays down the ground rules on what they expect from their referees and how they want games to be officiated. It is the reason why penalties are shared out and why in higher stakes games, like in the playoffs, the calls are less frequent. The league does not want to make a referee’s decision the centre of attention.

Ironically, in doing so, the NHL has created this game management backlash themselves.

Post-Tim Peel: An Alternative Way of Officiating?

Yet there are those that vehemently defend game management. A popular stance on the subject is that if the league started calling penalties on merit it would cause a procession of stoppages, killing any flow in the game. But why does it have to be this way?

After all, the unspoken slogan for playoff games, in particular, is “let the players play”, which is fine in principle. Everyone can get behind this idea.

Most people prefer watching two teams exchange high-end scoring chances, flying from one end to the other with fewer stoppages. It injects speed into the game flow and forces chaotic line changes as mistakes creep in and systems break down. It is all part of the glorious theatre of hockey and undeniably when the sport reaches its zenith.

The disclaimer here is that I am not on some kind of crusade for playoff-style hockey all year round. Though if ‘game management’ made way for consistency in the calling, most players wouldn’t complain.

Letting The Players Play, With Consistency

You can let the players play while remaining consistent throughout the contest. If one cross-check isn’t worthy of a call with two minutes left, then don’t call it at the start of the first period either. Who’s to say this couldn’t work in the regular season?

Adopting this method, where a logical view is applied to a rule throughout the entirety of the game, seems like an appropriate compromise. For example, a referee might deem slashing to be only when the stick breaks or a player’s hands are struck. This is a simple interpretation of the rule which any referee can easily apply in a game to create a sense of consistency but not one that will create a countless stream of stoppages.

In that Nashville game, Peel felt he needed to go out and penalize the Predators because he had already penalized Detroit. This is not how you achieve consistency which is really what any athlete wants. Otherwise, you end up playing two different sports because of the way that referees are manufacturing calls to suit the context within the matchup.

Will There Be a Clampdown on Parity?

Unfortunately, irrespective of this, the NHL is not going to overhaul its entire operation over the Tim Peel incident. For make-up calls are the lifeblood of the league; they are a conduit for manufacturing close competition, which is gold-dust to a league that trumpets parity above all else.

As long as games remain close and penalties are shared out, weaker teams can rely on losing bonus points to buoy them. Moreover, with just a one-point swing in games, the standings become more congested and even bad teams can sell the playoffs as an outside possibility to their fans.

Look at the Columbus Blue Jackets this season. They are three points off the playoffs but have lost eight times after regulation. Subtracting the losing points off of all the Central Division teams and Columbus would be ten points adrift.

Make-up calls, losing bonus points and parity in general: they all feed into tighter playoff races and happier owners across the board, which is what the NHL values most.

Tim Peel Settles The Score

What’s more, as far as the league is concerned, they have already buried the matter with Tim Peel’s disciplining.

In the league’s statement, which informed the media of its decision to pull Peel from his refereeing duties, the NHL has not expressed a need for reform. Nor did they indicate that a further review of its practices would be taking place. Instead, they honed in on the buzzword ‘integrity’ and identified Peel as the culprit for damaging that integrity.

For all intents and purposes, Peel’s punishment was purely a performative act on the NHL’s part. It was simply a way to quell the sense of injustice that boiled over from the incident. At the end of the day, they haven’t really done anything; Peel was due to retire at the end of this season anyway.

Presumably, the NHL will look after him financially while he falls gracefully on his sword and in doing so, keep the league’s reputation intact. Peel is the NHL’s scapegoat for game management.

Betting Could Force More Out of the Tim Peel Incident

There is one final caveat, though.

The one thing in all this that could end up making a difference is the betting market. If Vegas got involved, the NHL would have to rethink its stance.

At the moment, hockey is only starting to break into the sports betting scene. As those ties strengthen, the influence that betting has on the game will become a stronger factor behind any decision-making.

What will concern bookmakers at present, with regards to penalties, is that there is a predictability about them because of game management. To speak to this, Money Puck recently added a feature on their site where they produce probabilities for which team will receive the next penalty, in any given game.

Opportunities abound here for the average Joe to take advantage of this and make some money on prop bets. Of course, it is not foolproof but the way the referees currently manage the game makes it easier to predict outcomes. That alone gives any gambler more to go on than pure guesswork.

As a result, the NHL’s betting partners may yet weigh in on the Tim Peel debacle. Ultimately they won’t want any sort of predictive pattern in officiating because that takes away from the money-making potential. After all, money is the only thing that drives change in any professional sporting league.

Mind you, with how curmudgeonly this league can be, I wouldn’t bet on it, just yet.

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