One Ref, Two Ref, Red Ref, Blue Ref

An article in the Bangor ([nl]Maine) Daily News — and referenced on — caused a stir in Hockey East circles when it suggested the league was close to revamping its officiating system, and possibly adding a 4-on-4 overtime.

The comments from Maine coach Tim Whitehead, coming out of the coaches convention in April, were just intended to stir discussion, but it concerned league commissioner Joe Bertagna, who didn’t want anyone to get ahead of themselves.

The 4-on-4 idea is for another time, but the referee situation is something Hockey East was always serious about changing. As usual, it’s finding a consensus that’s the issue, but there were some things the league coaches agreed upon.

“There’s a feeling that in the current system,” Bertagna said, “that having two refs responsible to call lines and this strangely worded responsibility to call penalties — you have to determine if it’s a penalty and determine if the referee saw it to call it — there’s a consensus that icing and offsides calls are suffering.

“At the same time, one guy can’t see all the penalties.”

Going to four officials, with two referees and two linesmen, may have solved the problem, but not everyone is sold on two main referees. Plus, there are financial considerations of having to pay four officials for each game.

Instead, the new system will maintain one main referee, one assistant referee that can call penalties and some lines, and one main linesman. The system is considered experimental and, as a result, needed special approval from the NCAA ice hockey rules committee. After being passed by the rules committee and approved by HEA athletic directors, the system was put in place on an experimental basis for two years.

“Like any experimental thing, it’s for league games only,” Bertagna said.

In cases like this in the past, officials working in a league with an experimental system were precluded from working NCAA tournament games. That will not be the case here.

“The tournament committee said it’s not going to hold it against our officials,” said Bertagna. “They realize it’s such a subtle alteration of the system.”

Mechanically speaking, the main linesman will try as much as possible to position himself to call the lines as much as possible, though the assistant referee will still have lines duties that the linesman can’t possibly get to.

Beyond solving some of the on-ice problems, the new system, Bertagna said, was also about creating more opportunities for referees. Under the new system, new referees can be trained on the job, which makes it easier to find qualified new main referees once current ones retire or otherwise move on.

“It’s tough in the current system to develop new officials because there’s no middle step,” said Bertagna. “Now if we have a referee prospect, we can put him in a game with [Scott] Hansen, and he can learn.

“[The assistant referee spot is] an entry level position. Maybe it’s a guy who’s a good skater, but just hasn’t worked as much.”

Bertagna said this was a case where the coaches passed along a recommendation, and before bringing it to the Hockey East athletic directors for approval, he first took it to the NCAA men’s ice hockey rules committee. The rules committee had to allow the exception to the rule book before Hockey East could even think to use it.

“The ADs meeting wasn’t until June 19, and the rules committee was meeting [before that]. … So I presented it to the rules committee first.”

The athletic directors had no problem with it, especially since it won’t cost any more money.

“They basically listened to [HEA director of officials] Brendan [Sheehy].”

The end result of this experiment remains to be seen.

“One of two things will happen,” Bertagna said. “Either we can convince others this is the way to do it, and it becomes part of the [rule] book, or by that time — and I’m thinking this is probably going to happen — there’s a more national debate on whether it should be 2-and-2 [two referees and two linesmen] or 2-and-1.”

Bertagna sees the same kind of debates raging once again. The NHL two referee system seems to work OK, but college hockey tried it in the past and did away with it. The biggest complaint is that, with two equal referees, they often have different styles in calling the game.

“Some coaches say, ‘I want to know how the game is going to be called,'” Bertagna said. “The most heated debates we have ever had [at the coaches convention] in Florida have been over the system.”

The rules committee will, as it usually does, listen closely to what the coaches want, but ultimately, said Bertagna, this is a case where the committee has to make up its own mind.

“If you tend to have a strong, talented team, it’s to your benefit to have the game called fairly tight,” Bertagna said. “In theory, a less talented team resorts to slowing you down. So coaches are not making decisions [about which officiating system is best] on a philosophical mountaintop, but based on their own situations.

“A 2-man referee system might be the best system, but I’m not sure one’s ability to handicap the game should be the determining factor.”