Greetings from Vancouver, British Columbia. I am fortunate enough to be attending the IIHF World Junior Hockey tournament where tonight Canada takes on the US, in what could be the best game of the tournament.
Recognizing that there are already a plethora of analogies out there that draw on examples from sports, I can't resist using the officiating at the tournament to illustrate the importance of having clearly communicated and universally understood standards.
There are 10 countries represented in this tournament, and the referees are also drawn from international ranks. As with all sports, there are a set of rules, and penalties that are assessed when these rules are broken. In the case of this tournament, the governing body that sets the rules is the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).
Unfortunately officiating has become a growing concern in this tournament. Canada's last game Vs. Norway was not the first to have a steady stream of players heading to the penalty box. In that game there were a total of 16 penalties assessed to Team Canada, and almost an equal number to the Norwegians. The flow of the game was so bad, that it created what may have been the longest game ever in tournament history and it did not deliver the value expected by the fans.
The problem is not that penalties are being assessed, but rather that the teams, coaches and fans do not understand the calls. The penalties called do not match the common base of experience. Penalties are being called on plays that do not match what players, coaches and fans experience from playing in and watching games outside of the tournament. Furthermore, the penalties often do not match the labels that are used to describe them. For example, a ‘Boarding' penalty was assessed for a play that happened in the middle of the rink, just about as far away from the ‘boards' as was possible.
IIHF officials are meeting with referees between periods and following the games in order to review calls. This is being done both for the benefit of this tournament, but also to serve as a basis for the referees who after this tournament will be officiating games at the Olympics.
I think this is an important step to achieve consistency between games in the tournament, but I don't think it goes far enough. It is obvious that the IIHF is attempting to make changes to how the rules are applied. Given this change, the teams should also have an opportunity to be present during these reviews so they can learn and have an understanding of what is and what is not considered a penalty. In fact, if this is the basis for the standard that will be used at the Olympics, countries should also have an opportunity to have participation in these discussions from their Olympic team ranks.
The job of a referee is certainly not an easy one. Hockey is a dynamic, fast moving sport with a lot of action. It's difficult to see everything and make all the right calls. The referee also has several customers (or enemies depending on your viewpoint) who count on them to ensure that everyone is playing by the same rules – players, coaches, fans and governing bodies.
What this tournament has helped make clear to me is that the true value of a standard is in the common understanding and consistent application of that standard by everyone affected. Without this base, the standard does not truly exist.
Bob McKenzie, a commentator from TSN (ESPN's Canadian cousin) also has some comments about the officiating. You can check those out at http://www.tsn.ca/columnists/bob_mckenzie.asp.
Happy New Year!
(Mark here –> A similar piece I did on baseball umpiring is linked here)
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