Is referee bias the ultimate home-ice advantage in NHL?

Greg Wyshynski
March 2, 2009

The Edmonton Journal (H/T Kukla's) published the results of a rather remarkable study over the weekend that appears to confirm what every puckhead has suspected at least once in their lives: That NHL referees have a consistent bias against road teams, giving home teams the majority of the power plays.

From the Journal:

In a sampling of more than 2,300 power plays from Jan. 1 through mid-February, home teams had 11.5 per cent more man advantages than did visitors. National Hockey League teams have won 55 per cent more points and games at home than on the road this year - a statistic which fits nicely into the 54- to 56-per-cent advantage home teams have enjoyed throughout this decade.

The report, compiled by Vancouver researcher Will Lockwood of the Edmonton Journal, features some team-by-team numbers; for example, last year the Vancouver Canucks had the biggest home/away power-play advantage (5.17 at home vs. 3.83 on the road). In the last decade, the Canucks are second overall in home power plays received, ranking behind only the Phoenix Coyotes, whom the report found averaged 1.22 more power plays at home than their visiting opponents did.

So then we get to the "why?" of it all. There's some pop psychology from people like Calgary Flames Coach Mike Keenan, claiming the officials are "subconsciously" influenced by the crowd. But Stephen Walkom, the NHL's director of officiating, said that referees don't hear the crowd when they're in "the zone." But Walkom probably found a morsel of truth in this comment:

"I think there is more conscious pressure on the players to play better and harder in front of their home crowd than what affects the referee," said Walkom. "Players are conditioned early on that playing at home is our ice and that nobody beats us in our house."

Home teams are more aggressive than road teams, and draw more penalties. Makes sense.

That said ... does anyone really believe the zebras aren't influenced by the crowd? Not even in a "make-up call" sort of way?