Rule Enforcement: The Squeaky Wheel Effect
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Sports officials are like mailmen in that they deliver what they are told to deliver. Put another way, perhaps they can be likened to policemen on patrol: they don't make the rules but enforce the rules. Since they can't all be enforced to the letter of the law at all times -- such as ticketing someone who drives 56 miles per hour in a 55 zone -- some rules are bigger priorities than others.
There's nothing inherently nefarious about it. That's just how it works. However, the right things need to be prioritized and, for sake of improved consistency, enforced.
Too often, our game works in reactive ways. Called it the "Squeaky Wheel Effect."
The process goes like this: 1) A rule exists but is often placed on the enforcement backburner; 2) There is an incident that gets negative publicity; 3) The enforcement directives come down; 4) the rule gets enforced more regularly for a while; 5) coaches and players, fans and owners gripe that "no one pays to see these overbearing refs"; 6) Some other rules controversy arises and takes it place as the enforcement priority du jour; 7) return to step one and start the cycle anew.
I have seen this more times than I can count, especially as the Rule Book got thicker and thicker. It happens on a cyclical ebb-and-flow basis with holding (including holding the stick), interference, slashing in its various forms (especially slashing the stick or the hand). It happens with other rules, too.
On a theoretical level, it is hard to argue that something that is a penalty in October should not also be a penalty in June. On a practical level, though, it doesn't always work that way. If you sat down and watched an average game with Rule Book in hand and an inclination to apply only the strictest of standards by the letter of the law, there would be dozens of power plays on each side.
No one truly wants that, so judgment decisions have to be made on what's worthy of a call and what is incidental to the play. The guideline for enforcement should be to place top priority on keeping the game safe and keeping it fair. By fair, I do not mean the calls should balance out to equal or roughly equal the power plays. I mean that infractions that give a team an unfair advantage, take away or create a scoring are the main ones that need to be called along with dangerous or reckless actions that endanger players' safety.
I have cited this example in past blogs, but it bears repeating because it's an all-too-common infraction that doesn't get enough enforcement priority at the NHL level: face-masking.
A few years ago, the NHL made a tweak to the rules to impose a penalty when a player grabs an opponent's visor. There is also a penalty for the infraction in other Rule Books as well. USA Hockey, for example, specified a major penalty and game misconduct when a player grabs/holds an opponent's cage. It gets enfor
However, in the NHL, enforcement of the standard has never truly become a priority. In each of the last three Stanley Cup playoff years, I have noticed "face-masking" episodes throughout the postseason-- some that were blatant, some that were more subtle.
They all deserved to be called. Face-masking is not just an unsportsmanlike infraction, it's also a potentially dangerous one in it's more egregious forms. Before next season, I think there needs to be a directive on this topic in order for there to be a crackdown. This is also not something that should be relaxed as the season rolls along. Things that fall in the "dangerous infraction" category should be called consistently.
Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.
Today, Stewart serves as director of hockey officiating for the ECAC.