The popular first take on Stephen Walkom’s call late in Game 7 of the Chicago Blackhawks-Detroit Red Wings series is, “How could he make that call at that time?”
Plenty of professional commentators — who should have a reasonable feel for what a referee’s job entails — have lambasted Walkom for the call, let alone the legions of hockey fans who simply saw a late goal waived off and let Walkom have it on Twitter.
Said Mike Milbury on the NBC broadcast: “Nobody’s getting punched, nobody’s getting hit. It was a good hit.”
We’ve also heard this one: “Look! Walkom never even raised his arm to signal a penalty!”
We were told by a referee years ago, "You never raise your arm for coincidental penalties. You blow the whistle. The play is dead."
Or this one, from Milbury's sidekick, Keith Jones: "From his angle, he could see the play still developing, too. He made the wrong call. It's an absolutely atrocious call."
The back referee's job is to focus on things happening behind the play. He can't watch the altercation along the Detroit bench and also study the offensive play happening two zones away. There is an official there to watch the potential goal, the primary reason why the National Hockey League went to the two referee system.
Watch the video, and you'll see Walkom blowing his whistle just as Niklas Hjalmarsson accepts the pass from Andrew Shaw. The Blackhawks bench clearly hears the whistle -- as does the Red Wings bench -- even though the players involved in the play obviously can’t hear the whistle behind the play in a loud playoff building.
In a regular season game, Hjalmarsson likely hears the whistle and may not even take the shot.
In the video, you see Walkom watching the altercation between Detroit's Kyle Quincey and Chicago's Brandon Saad in front of the Red Wings bench. He's approaching the fracas and the moment that Saad throws a right hand from his back at the head of Quincey, Walkom appears to deem this a coincidental minors situation.
You can see from behind, as his right hand goes to his mouth. The whistle is blown, two strides before Hjalmarsson unleashes his shot.
As referees are not made available by the NHL during playoffs, we are left to judge the video on our own.
In the video, we see Walkom assess an altercation, yet he does not raise his arm for a penalty on Quincey. When Saad fights back, Walkom takes the opportunity to level coincidental penalties, as we'll assume he'd rather not give the Blackhawks a power play with 1:49 left in the third period of a tied Game 7.
It's an altercation behind the play, late in a decisive game. A punch or two, and two players fall to the ice.
It's the type of call made time after time in this situation, and hockey culture generally looks favourably on a referee who does not "influence the game" with a late power play.
We wouldn't even be talking about the call today had Hjalmarsson not scored seconds later. It would be worse, had Detroit eventually won the game.