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The NHL Needed a Scapegoat. They Found One in Tim Peel.

On Tuesday night, during a game between the Nashville Predators and the Detroit Red Wings, the Nashville Predators were assessed a minor penalty, a trip against forward Viktor Arvidsson. The play didn’t look like much, but nevertheless, Arvidsson was sent to the box. Later that period, official Tim Peel, who made the call, was caught on a hot mic stating to the Predators bench, “It wasn’t much but I wanted to get a f****** penalty against Nashville early in the—”. The clip was posted over social media and soon went viral. That night, the NHL would go on to state they were “investigating the incident.” It was then announced early Wednesday that Peel “no longer will be working NHL games now or in the future.”

Peel had been an NHL referee since 1999 and had worked over 1300 games. Although a veteran in the game, he’s often been the target of criticism from NHL fans for his officiating. A recent poll done by The Athletic had Peel ranked by NHL players as the second worst referee in the league, gaining 12% of the vote from about 150 players who answered the survey question (the top answer was Justin St. Pierre, at 42% of the vote).

Despite Peel’s faults, this particular situation seems like the league trying to find an easy scapegoat for a bigger problem. Fans have long clamored that the NHL has instructed officials on “game management”—that is, keeping the game even by calling roughly the same amount of penalties on each team, regardless of whether or not one team is committing more than the other. Logic, however, suggests that better teams should draw more penalties; they are likely faster and more skilled, and thus the less skilled team needs to commit infractions in order to keep up in the game. Is that the case in the league? Far from it. Out of the top ten teams for drawing penalties, just three are in the top half of the league in point percentage. 

Looking at the penalty data from the past week of games, the idea of “game management” fits the numbers well. Out of the 53 games played in the last week, just twelve of them resulted in an uneven penalty margin of 2 or more. From those twelve, nine were within a two penalty call margin (for example, the home team gets called for four penalties and the away team two). So, over the course of the past week of games, only three out of 53 games, or 5.66%, have seen truly uneven penalties calls. 

Is it necessarily this cut and dry? No. However, there does seem to be a league wide officiating problem when it comes to consistent penalty calls. Even more interesting, when it comes to the Peel situation, Peel was talking to a Nashville Predator about his decision to call the penalty, not his fellow official, and there didn’t seem to be any indication of the Predator being upset with the call. While Peel has taken the fall for the hot mic situation, it’s not hard to imagine other officials making similar decisions to “even up” the game, and players and coaches seem to understand this.

Game management also doesn’t seem to just be about a relatively even number of penalties at the end of the game. According to a study done by fivethiryeight, which tracked penalty calls between 2005-2015, teams that have received multiple power play opportunities are far less likely to receive another one (or the next one) in the game. For example, they say: “If a game starts with four straight penalties against the away team, […] the home team is about three times as likely to be called for the next one.” In that ten year span, the most common sequence of penalty calls was Away-Home-Away-Home. So, not only does it seem like the league is trying to keep the overall amount of penalties even, but the flow of the penalty calls as well. 

Reportedly, Peel was set to retire at the end of this year. NHL Insider Bob McKenzie also stated on NBC Sports Network that, to his understanding, Peel was not being fired. According to McKenzie, “he’ll continue to get paid” and “his pension is still intact.” Additionally, McKenzie says that he doesn’t “get the sense that there’s any significant appetite on the NHL’s part to change policy on how games are officiated.” 

Peel’s hot mic incident is part of a larger problem in the league. The NHL seemed to want to take the easy way out: make the Peel comments seem like a Tim Peel problem and use him as a scapegoat in order to protect the reputation of the league and its officials. In turn, by unofficially retiring Peel a month early, the NHL comes out on top. Sure, Peel’s reputation may be a little tarnished, but fans and players already held his officiating in low regard. Rather than looking into how and when penalties are called in the league, they can brush this off as an isolated incident, and continue on with their “game management” policy. At the end of the day, Peel took the fall for a problem that extends past one man, and the league should learn from this situation.

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