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Photo Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Tim Peel: The First Rule…

This just in – NHL referees have been managing games by massaging the rule book as they see fit based on the circumstances of any given game since the first puck dropped. That management of games includes obligatory make-up calls. You’ve seen it. I’ve seen it since I first started watching Hockey Night in Canada on a black and white TV.

This is Captain Obvious material. If the NHL’s front office, right from boss Gary Bettman on down, didn’t approve of having its officials manage games this way – looking the other way when infractions occur or penalizing a team for next-to-nothing by way of a make-up call – the practice would have been out of the game decades ago. One memo. One meeting. Done.

Apparently, though, it’s a far more serious offence to be caught talking about managing the game than it is to actually do it right before our eyes, as referee Tim Peel found out after his comments, F-bomb and all, were caught by a hot mic during a game between the Nashville Predators and Detroit Red Wings Tuesday. Oopsy.

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Essentially, the microphone caught Peel talking to the Detroit bench about what we’ve been watching forever. Now he’s out as the NHL has announced Peel, a veteran of more than 1,300 NHL games, will no longer be working games. While Peel, 54, planned to retire in April, it’s a kick in the ass on the way out the door for doing what is expected of every NHL referee.

THE RULING

Colin Campbell, the NHL’s Senior Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations, made the announcement: “Nothing is more important than ensuring the integrity of our game,” Campbell said. “Tim Peel’s conduct is in direct contradiction to the adherence to that cornerstone principle that we demand of our officials and that our fans, players, coaches and all those associated with our game expect and deserve. There is no justification for his comments, no matter the context or his intention, and the National Hockey League will take any and all steps necessary to protect the integrity our game.”

So, Peel gets the sack for verbalizing what’s been standard NHL practice and obvious to eyeballs since players used straight wooden sticks. Peel’s early forced retirement is done, Campbell would have us believe, for the integrity of the game. I can’t keep a straight face reading it. I wonder if Soupy managed to do the same while writing it. Integrity of the game, my eye.

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The first rule regarding NHL referees managing games is much the same as the first rule about Fight Club. That being, of course, that the first rule about Fight Club is that you do not talk about Fight Club. I’m not sure we can find a memo about that around NHL head offices – although they’ve been sloppy before – but trotting out the integrity of the game routine while running Peel is standard corporate BS.

I wonder how Edmonton Oilers’ fans feel about this integrity of the game stuff after watching Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl roped and hog-tied for years with referees often choosing to look the other way? While McDavid draws more penalties than anybody because he’s faster and more skilled than everybody he plays against, a lot of the stuff contrary to the rulebook he has to fight through goes uncalled. Same for a lot of skill guys.

While game management by referees is seldom spoken of by the NHL and never heard, at least until Tuesday, the in-game approach seems to be, “We’ve already called three penalties on the other guys, we can’t make it four.”  So, when McDavid gets hauled down again, the whistle stays in the pocket. That, or we get make-up calls. If the Oilers get three straight calls for, you can bet the farm that the next one is going against them. It’s like clockwork.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Dec 31, 2019; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers head coach Dave Tippett is seen out on the players bench talking with Referee Ian Walsh (29) as they played the New York Rangers during the second period at Rogers Place. Oilers won the game 7-5. Mandatory Credit: Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports

I get it that calling absolutely everything by the rule book without any room for discretion by officials is easier said than done. I don’t think anybody wants to see games grind to a halt for every single infraction, transforming games into endless displays of power play prowess. But making infractions up, like Peel did Tuesday? The real problem isn’t that Peel got caught talking about it, but that he felt the need to do it, to find something, to even things up.

That’s an issue that goes right to the top and it’s something that needs to be addressed at the top — the sooner the better. If it wasn’t OK with Bettman and the rest of the NHL’s head office, tweaking the rule book, looking the other way and coming up with make-up calls wouldn’t be happening game after game, season after season. If the NHL is really interested in the integrity of the game beyond providing lip service, it’ll take a lot more than offering up Tim Peel on his way out the door. Let’s start there.

Previously by Robin Brownlee