What the Tim Peel incident says about the role of 'game management'

Elliotte Friedman and Anthony Stewart talk with Jeff Marek about the implications around the Tim Peel controversy, and how it affects more than just the calls on the ice for any given team.

EDMONTON — In the wake of the Tim Peel clip that shook the hockey world Wednesday, we ask the rhetorical question: From the standpoint of a National Hockey League referee, what exactly is game management?

Was Peel simply “managing the game” when he spoke of wanting to penalize Nashville “early in the” period, as he chatted with fellow referee Kelly Sutherland while standing too close to an ice effects microphone?

Or was he really trying to justify a poor call to his colleague, the way a player casts a look of blame at a perfectly good stick after he misses an open net? “It was a lousy call, but this is why I made it…”

“The guy had a brain cramp,” former NHL referee Paul Stewart said of Peel, with whom he once worked. “Maybe he looked at the penalty, or he thought about it, and he said, ‘That wasn’t so good.’ So maybe he was trying to give himself a little ‘atta boy’ to buck up his spirit.”

Maybe Peel was simply executing one of the commonly held definitions of “game management” by handing a minor to Nashville early in the second period, because Detroit had the only minor in the first period. That didn’t fly with former NHL Director of Officiating Bryan Lewis, who spoke to “The Writers Block” Wednesday.

“There was no need to overwork that game,” Lewis said.

Translation: It was a calm, low-event game that did not need over managing by the zebras.

So why was Peel managing this game? Perhaps he was executing the old “make-up call” after missing something earlier.

“There are screens and replays,” offered Oilers winger Tyler Ennis. “Maybe they’ll catch something that they missed.”

Perhaps, but if so Peel should have kept his mouth shut about it.

Peel’s comments cost him his final month on the job after nearly 1,500 games, and the chance to retire with dignity in a referee’s traditional final game later this season. A league that has fostered game management, condoned game management — and quite possibly taught game management to its officials — for decades, disciplined Peel Wednesday for verbalizing his own attempt at game management.

Could we ever exorcize hockey of “game management?” Or are we stuck with it?

Is it too easy to simply say, “call the rule book?”

Or this old favourite: “Set a standard and stick with it.”

Let’s start with the standard: What does a referee do when his partner makes a soft call? Does he then make soft calls the rest of the night, because “the standard” is set?

“When you have a call that may be perceived as a soft call,” said Edmonton head coach Dave Tippett, “then a coach says, ‘OK, that’s the standard that’s set for tonight.’ So you’re looking for a bunch more soft calls.”

If a player misses a scoring chance early, he tries to improve as the game goes on. Should the referees not do the same? Do we expect them to get every call 100 per cent correct?

“Game management is a term that someone came up with that I never subscribed to,” said Stewart, who worked over 1,000 NHL games. “My attitude was to go out there, be in position, observe what you see and make the appropriate call.”

Even Stewart admits, however, to a level of game management. He would talk to a player who was close to earning a penalty, in hopes that player would correct his game.

“You have plays that aren’t a two-minute penalty, but might be a one-minute penalty. They’re on the edge. That’s when you communicate with a player,” Stewart said.

If the player does the same thing the next shift, often Stewart would make the call. Two “one-minute penalties” would thus become a two-minute penalty, a form of game management.

Take it into your kitchen: Your child does something inappropriate, and you say clearly, “Please don’t so that. In our house, that is not something that is condoned.”

No punishment. Just simple direction.

Five minutes later the child does the same thing, with no regard for the parent’s previous communication. In most households, some kind of penalty would be applied upon the second infraction that was not applied the first time.

What doesn’t happen however, is that the parent doesn’t go looking for a sibling to “even up” the discipline.

There is beat management among us sports writers, where we work harder on some relationships than others, so we can provide the reader with the best possible product.

There is office management, where our bosses makes certain decisions that may differ depending on the people they affect.

We’ve all had good, fair bosses who make the proper calls, and bad ones who don’t. The same way Wes McCauley works one game, while a far less experienced official works another.

Yet somehow we look at all the NHL officials and expect them to perform equally — like robots from the same factory — because they are both NHL referees.

But we don’t ask Wayne Simmonds to play the same as Connor McDavid, even though they are both NHL players.

Whatever the solution, hockey has become a sport that lives with game management the way a giraffe lives with those birds that stand on his head and clean his fur.

They’re old friends, even if they bug each other sometimes.

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