Color Coded Calls

I stayed home recently to watch a Hockey East game on television. After a first period dotted with a number of minor penalty calls, a player was interviewed by the roving ice-level commentator. When the broadcaster asked the sweaty iceman how the calls affected the flow of the first period, the player answered, “Yeah, it was pretty tough out there. Hopefully the ref will let us play in the second period.”

It is at a time like this that I wish my remote was equipped with a “TRANSLATE” button. This could be a TIVO-like feature that, when pushed, rewinds to the last quote and adds sub-titles at the bottom of your screen, so you can understand what the last speaker meant. (Just think how helpful this could be at, say, a George Bush press briefing.) In this instance, the sub-titles would read, “I hope we can break the rules in the second period and the ref won’t call penalties.”

The “Let Them Play” culture (heretofore designated as “LTP”) has been widely accepted, to one degree or another. I feel safe in asserting that a rather large majority of players, coaches and fans accepts the notion that a referee should not call every literal violation of every rule in the book. That said, what many of us have concluded is that the “LTP” pendulum has swung so far in the direction of anarchy that something had to be done to reverse the trend. And thus was born the directive that went out from the NCAA this past fall and reiterated earlier this month.

As has been observed by many, “LTP” usually means let a defender play. Rarely, does it apply to an offensive player, except, perhaps, when an offensive player tries to “pick” a defender in a set play off a face-off. And so the “LTP” phenomenon, when taken to the extreme, comes at a cost to the offense more than the defense.

What those of us in support of this year’s directive are trying to do, in effect, is change the culture. If you watch all levels of play from youth hockey through our college game, you are exposed time and again to players getting called for obvious violations of the book who routinely throw their arms up in shock that they are being penalized.

If you could interview these poor souls, you would discover that in many instances, they won’t argue that what they did was not a violation of the rules. They just can’t believe the ref called it. They expect things to be let go as part of the game. That’s why when the NCAA decided to identify three situations that officials had to call tightly this season, it was considered controversial and resulted in a distinct period of adjustment.

If many of us have our way, this season will represent the start of a longer and more thorough process whose goal is to recapture the game we once had. The three situations identified this year should remain as targets for our officials. But we should expand our focus. And it is likely that when the college hockey community meets in Naples, FL, in April, the gathering will not only look back to see how effective this year’s initiative was, but to discuss going forward into new battlefields.

What those areas are remains to be seen. I, for one, would like to see other parts of our culture attacked so that we eliminate from our speech the following:

“How can you put us down 5-on-3?” (Hey coach, isn’t your player who slashed the guy in front of the net the one who put you down 5-on-3?) “That’s a terrible call at that time of the game!” (But it would be, what, a good call ten minutes earlier?)

“That’s five in a row on us, ref. When do they get one?” (Ah, when they commit the same violation as your five guys just did.)

“C’mon, that was just a little hook.” (You are right. And it caused a little obstruction. That caused a little delay in his getting to the net. Which caused a big difference in the type of scoring opportunity your worthy opponent got out of the play.)

“Do you believe an ‘AR’ made that call?” (Let’s see. You don’t dispute it was a penalty. Your problem is that this official called it instead of that official, right?)

And this brings us to a likely topic for Florida and beyond: the role of the assistant ref. Most people agree that the game is increasingly difficult for one official to call. Yet coaches, in a desire for predictability on a given game night, vocally oppose a two-ref system. And so we have created this system that no one really likes. The poor “AR” must, at the same time, determine if a violation of the rules took place AND if the referee saw it. He is only supposed to whistle the infraction if he is sure that it was indeed a violation AND his buddy didn’t see it.

On top of those restrictions, I am still afraid that some referees make it known that they would prefer their partners to be less active rather than more active. And so when an “AR” does step up and make a call, as he should, it’s considered rather bold of the guy, rather than a routine act of responsibility.

I think I have come up with a solution that will address the need for two men calling penalties and the coaches’ desire for predictability. Borrowing from Tom Ridge and the Homeland Security system of color coded terror alerts, I say we arm the officials with a collection of different colored arm bands. Here’s how it would work:

If a referee intends to call a moderate type of game, no crackdown and no “LTP” mode, he wears an orange arm band. If he intends to call it tight, he wears red. If he is in “LTP” mode, he wears yellow. Now, this allows different refs to wear different colors or for a given ref to change bands from one period to another or even within a period.

Can’t you see it? One ref is wearing orange and the other has on a red band. Then, during a TV timeout with five minutes to go and the score knotted at 2-2, they both go to the bench and put on their yellow arm bands. Wait, it gets better. This system is so efficient that it could accommodate such intricate situations as an overtime power play.

Let’s say that someone commits such a flagrant slash in overtime that both refs raise their arms and acknowledge the call. Well, in today’s culture, few people want to see a potential 5-on-3 in overtime. In fact, my poll says most people expect a so-called “make-up” call against the team on the power play so that a 4-on-4 situation will result. So, with the color coded arm bands, the refs go to a two-band approach. On one arm, they wear white, indicating that the team that is already down a player will be subject to Code White. That means that anything short of a firearms violation will not be called.

On the other arm, the refs wear black. The team that is on the power play will be subject to Code Black. That means that if they even look hard at an opposing player, they will be called for a minor. All of this just acknowledges openly what everyone in the building is thinking anyway.

Before I hear from the Rules Committee or one of my Hockey East directors, this is offered with tongue planted firmly in cheek. But if we don’t take a serious look at our hockey culture in regards to how the game is called, we might as well order the arm bands and acknowledge what already takes place on a typical Friday or Saturday night.

Joe Bertagna, a former Chair of the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Ice Hockey Rules Committee, is the Commissioner of the Hockey East Association and Executive Director of the American Hockey Coaches Association.