Time to drop referees from NHL coach's challenge

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Another night, another coach’s challenge controversy.

This time it was the Edmonton Oilers vs. the Calgary Flames. Benoit Pouliot scored on the power play. Mark Letestu provided the screen. Maybe it was his glove brushing against Karri Ramo’s mask. Maybe it was Ramo’s stick getting tangled with the skaters in front. Whatever it was, the Flames successfully challenged and had the goal overturned.

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The other night, it was Joffrey Lupul of the Toronto Maple Leafs who … I don’t know, breathed on Henrik Lundqvist before the puck went by him and then nudged his pad with his skate:

In the grand tradition of the NHL’s best intentions getting mangled in execution – see also the instigator penalty, salary cap floor and countless others – the first weeks of the coach’s challenge are hinting about the same fate.

The problem isn’t with the concept, which is long overdue and a necessary check on close calls. The problem isn’t with coaches abusing it, which was an early concern.

The problem is that referees have somehow found a way to use a mechanism designed to reverse their bad calls to make even worse calls.

At first I thought this was a Tim Peel problem, but we’ve now seen a half-dozen examples of referees grading their own tests and refusing to follow the answer key. Even if you think the contact made by Letestu was enough for goalie interference, that Lupul call had to be overturned. Or else go back to the “no one in the crease save for the goalie” Brett Hull skate crap.

So how do we strengthen the coach’s challenge? Two solutions:

1. Develop an across-the-board standard for goalie interference, much like the Department of Player Safety has for the various infractions it oversees. While no two plays are alike, there needs to be uniform agreement on a play like Lupul’s, which is something that will be discussed at the upcoming GMs meetings. 

“But wait,” you say, “the referees are already schooled on such standards every season!”

That’s correct, which is why …

2. Just give the War Room the final call on coach’s challenges.

Why don’t they have it already? Was it some kind of caveat to the referees so they didn’t get all boo-boo faced about having someone checking more of their work during the game? “There’s a sensitivity that you don’t want the have Toronto making all the calls,” said Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet on Saturday night.

But why not? Look at the Department of Player Safety, which functions much better than many fans will admit. They review plays based on their own philosophies and precedent. In the process, it’s helped the players themselves better understand what it or isn’t allowed.

The War Room should serve the same function for goalie interference. One governing body with several voices working together to make a call vs. an entire league of referees that couldn’t agree on how many stripes their shirts have, let alone goalie interference standards? It’s no contest.

Perhaps the NHL needs a full season as proof of concept before eliminating the referees from the process. But it probably needs to happen for the coach’s challenge to work, giving us more of a uniform standard for enforcement. Instead of whatever the hell we’re getting now. 

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