Stephen Walkom, the NHL’s director of officiating, implemented a rule. After the league decides on the officials who make the cut to work the next round of the playoffs, there is no complaining from those who don’t. No phone calls. No arguing.
NHL officials have to deal with enough outside noise. Internal bickering had to be completely removed this time of year because it was becoming a problem.
“It really hurt the work culture,” Walkom said when we chatted following the completion of the first round of the playoffs. “It was one of those things that you have to try to come up with a solution for it at the end of the year because you’re getting people who are mad they are not working, disappointed and it upset."
The rule was implemented, which allowed the other officials to advance in peace.
“It was non-negotiable; the game is bigger than any official,” Walkom said. “The buy-in was good by the guys.”
Walkom and I were chatting the day after three exciting Game 7s in the NHL, a day in which everyone was talking about the San Jose Sharks' collapse, the Minnesota Wild's resilience and the New York Rangers winning another Game 7 at Madison Square Garden.
For Walkom, the better thing was what people weren’t talking about: officiating. In the biggest games of the year, there wasn’t a call being debated the next morning. He joined a conference call with the general managers of the teams that advanced, and it was over and done in about 15 minutes, pretty standard stuff.
“Overall in the first round, there were a few calls that if you could redo you would change,” Walkom said. “Overall, I felt our theme was consistency and making sure we stuck to the NHL standard. We had a full buy-in and commitment from the guys. I really think they did a good job. I was proud of the guys. It’s not easy."
Some of those redos came in high-profile situations. The Sharks never rebounded against the Los Angeles Kings after referee Chris Lee allowed Justin Williams to push Alex Stalock backward, leading to a critical Kings goal.
Two very high-profile missed calls led to a flare-up of complaining about the state of officiating in the NHL.
“I personally think it’s gotten worse,” said one NHL head coach. “There are so many young officials ... and the older guys are getting older.”
One team executive lamented the inconsistencies in a few key areas, including goalie interference, faceoffs and cross-checks. Don’t be surprised to see a push from NHL GMs to implement more instant replay on goalie interference because of it.
In theory, the officiating should only get better this postseason because it’s designed to be a meritocracy.
As the playoffs progress from round to round, the number of officials is cut down, with the current pool of referees at 12. If only the best officials make the playoffs, and then only the best advance each round, the improvement should be noticeable.