Who guards the guardians is a question that goes back far longer than organized sports. It predates most of the trappings of civilization humanity has become acclimatized to over the last two or three millennium. When you invest someone with power, how do you prevent that power from ruining the thing it was meant to serve and protect? Note the order of those last three words, we’ll come back to them later.
Law enforcement has its own internal order keepers, sometimes effective, sometimes not. Sporting officials, and particularly NHL officiating don’t seem to have any wardens of their own integrity. Worse, the checks and balances that exist in the forms of judicial oversight and citizen pressure don’t exist. When coaches perform poorly someone pushes them out the door. Players will get benched, demoted or not get new contracts. Referees? The same sort of problems as police, only their failures are brushed aside and the NHL waves its hands as says “these are not the issues you are looking for”.
What should be Plato’s ideal noocracy is at best a magocracy operating on such fascinating tenets as intent to blow, that other mortals can’t comprehend or be expected to duplicate, and is often an outright idiocracy. Officials who toss players out of games because they think the player did something that did not result in injury, but don’t make calls on things like slashed/broken sticks that have been an automatic penalty since the end of the lockout are at best incompetent. When coaches who have been around for decades and played junior, collegiate, and professionally himself is moved to speak out about the unfortunately unquestionable quality of officiating, as an organization you’ve crossed the Rubicon.
The officials in any sport, just like the police or army, should be the least visible part of the system. As dangerous as head hits, boarding, and bench clearing brawls are to the sport of hockey as a whole none is as dangerous as fans (the source of revenue) coming to the belief that the players and coaches have been reduced to a trifling role in the outcome of games. Even over the premature end of the career of superstars, loss of faith in the consumer is the great danger.
Bobby Orr, Patrick Roy, Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros, Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe all eventually ended their careers. Everyone, player, coach, media owner and fan knows no player or team is bigger than the game. The great Montreal dynasties, the impressive runs of the Oilers, Islanders and others all ended and the league went on. Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar, Shea Weber, Steven Stamkos are all expected to play another decade or more. But if they go, there will be someone else to fill their spot in the roster and inspire the next generation of players, and the entire swathe of fans who like their style in the hope that player will make the play that decides the game, wins the series, brings home the cup or just knocks a rival out of the playoffs.
The scandals in sports that have aroused the most ire haven’t been the sexual, scatological, pharmaceutical or financial. While it might get a few plays during the sports report, no one cares which player is sleeping with some other guys ex or current significant other, mother or sister. Ask anyone about Tiger Woods problems and they’ll tell you he needs to get his focus back, his marriage was his concern and all they care about is his play. Ben Rothlesberger or Kobe Bryant, again, people care what happens on the field.
But ask a question about cheating by coaches or officials who have fixed games and the reaction is anything but tame. Hockey is about the only sport in North America where if you ask 100 fans or media members who the worst or most disliked official is you can get multiple names from the majority of them. Their are two reasons for this; a) bad officiating [if its malicious, incompetent or some combination of the two is nearly irrelevant] b) hockey is the ultimate team sport. It’s one of the most beautiful things about the sport and its surrounding culture. From the time a boy or girl is playing their first game they are taught team success is my success and it pervades who they are an is absorbed into the people around them.
Intrusive officiating of either the incompetent or biased variety takes that away. If they players stop believing that they will stop inspiring others to sacrifice for the team or to play at all. If that happens the well of future players goes dry, all the other major sports pay far more and may demand less. Worse, the fans will notice the shift and abandon the sport like they did after (and before) the lockout in favor of other forms of entertainment that they don’t have reason to believe lie to them about who holds the whip in deciding the outcome. Officiating that damages the leagues image serves no one, and when it fails that there will soon be no one left to protect.