My night at the bar with Tim Peel, NHL ref and object of scorn

Tim Peel

“That one hurt.”

NHL referee Tim Peel and I are at Foley’s pub in New York, which is the only logical place for a hockey summit. He’s between games, having officiated in Washington the night before and headed over to New Jersey on Friday night. He’s affable, engaging, the kind of guy who gives you a tap on the knee before hitting a punchline in that “you’re going to want to hear this one” way.

And he’s sitting across from a guy who’s ridden his ass like a jockey for the last two years.

We were aware of Tim Peel well before his foibles became a department on this website. A lot of hockey fans were. The criticism of his many mishaps tracks back to 2008 on the venerable Kukla’s Korner. The advent of social media in hockey fandom led to a cottage industry of “Tim Peel Alerts” when he was scheduled to officiate the game.

We had written about him regularly since around Dec. 2013, which is when “The Adventures of Tim Peel, Terrible NHL Referee” debuted. That was followed by “The Continuing Adventures of Tim Peel” and so on. We’d show his blown calls and bad judgment, and assess it with a banana peel score, like a star scale. There’s no question this helped push Peel as the poster-boy for NHL officiating incompetence, although we’d argue he was already in that spotlight when we intensified it.

Anyway, here’s Peel, beer in hand, explaining that for all the derision, all the criticism, there was one thing that really hurt.

It was when he was named to officiate the Sochi Olympics hockey tournament in Dec. 2013, and our response was to publish a laundry list of his mistakes in the NHL. But it wasn’t so much that as the headline that got to him: “Tim Peel is an Olympic referee; what’s Russian for ‘blown call’?”

It was at that point, he tells me, when he realized that there was this permanent stigma attached to his name; that when his two young children are old enough, that they’ll search out their dad on the Internet and this is what they’ll find.

I know this was part of the message he wanted to convey to me, having tried to set up a meeting on a few previous occasions. A chance to see the human behind the zebra sweater, clear the air, all that. And I appreciated the effort.

Me? Well, I love dealing with those I criticize and those who are critical of me. If it doesn’t lead to cringe-worthy confrontations, it will  lead to some level of greater understanding about each other, which is always productive.

This meeting was surreal. I’m not going to lie. He was just so god-damned nice to someone that picked apart his failures and helped turn “Tim Peel Alert” into Twitter shorthand for “what’s going to get screwed up tonight?” He was, like too nice. The kind of nice the precedes a broken bottle and him gutting me like a trout in the middle of a Manhattan sports bar.

But instead we were toasting shots of tequila while glancing at the Wild and Flames on the television; two hockey guys, talking hockey.

Here’s what I learned about Tim Peel in 90 minutes on two bar stools: He knows who he is. He has a level of self-evaluation that’s impressive, although I wished I had asked if it was influenced at all by the public scorn he deals with. My concern was that it was going to be an evening of him defending each criticism I’ve given him through the years; instead, it was an acknowledgment that he screws up sometimes, and screws up grandly.

Case in point: The Sami Vatanen diving call.

Peel called diving on the Anaheim Ducks defenseman in one of the single worst calls of the NHL season. It sent Bruce Boudreau into hysterics, and rightfully so.

But Peel knows it was a bad call, to the point where he skated up to the Ducks bench and apologized the next time he officiated an Anaheim game. So why make it? Well, because the NHL wanted a crackdown on diving, and with that mandate, he felt compelled to make that call.

In talking to Peel, you start to see a pattern: The NHL asks its officials to manage the game a certain way, and they have to do it. The Alex Ovechkin penalty in the previous night’s game in Washington?

Peel admits it was a call he wouldn’t have made in a 1-1 game, and wouldn’t have made without knowing that the NHL wants this penalty for the sake of "game management," in order to ensure a 4-0 game between two rivals doesn’t get out of hand. Peel said he went over to Barry Trotz after the call, explained it, and the coach, having seen this episode before, said he understood.

He’s a guy who knows he makes mistakes, whether it’s because the game is too fast, or he got the call wrong or because the NHL is asking him to focus on a certain call and he overreaches. He’s knows his limitations. I asked Peel why he’s never officiated a Stanley Cup Final in over 15 years as a League official.

“Because there are guys that are better than me,” he said.

A few more things I learned about Tim Peel:

1. NHL referees own two shirts, wear both during games, and then have to do their own laundry when arriving in each new NHL city. Like, literally getting quarters for the machine from the hotel’s front desk.

2. He’s a New Brunswick native who’s lived in St. Louis for some time, and has a rather apparent affinity for toasted ravioli.

3. I’ve often talked about the “cloud of incompetence” that follows Peel around, and he confirmed something I’ve suspected about that: Since he’s a veteran official in the NHL, he’s tasked with mentoring younger referees, who often make mistakes. They happen in his games, so he gets the blame. And we’re all like “why does this weirdness always affect Tim Peel games?”

4. He keeps Photoshopped images of himself on his phone. Because he finds them funny.

I couldn’t quite tell if he ultimately found our coverage amusing. I got the sense this meeting was so I could put a face to the name and he could do the same. That it was an informal request for fairness in criticizing him, and maybe not to be so abjectly nasty about it.

The former, frankly, I think we’ve done for years. Tim Peel can be a bad referee. His mistakes aren’t just goofs, they’re glaring, embarrassing moments. There’s a reason fans know his name, and it’s not because we write blog posts about him. It’s because he makes questionable calls, be it because he’s serving the League’s best interests or because he just didn’t get it right. If there's any caveat I'd offer here, it's that he's not the only NHL referee to make these calls, although you'd think it based on fan reception.

That said … yeah, we could be nicer. Admittedly. He’s a good guy. He’s trying. Maybe we drop the banana peels at the very least. Because ultimately the goal is to criticize his performance, not crush his soul.

After about 90 minutes, I walked out of the bar into a snow shower. I hoped Tim got whatever he was looking for out of it, because I know I did: a little better understanding about the man and his mistakes, a new perspective on our criticism of them. And, well, this photo.