The NHL’s Replay Challenge System is Garbage

Please don’t let the subtle headline obscure the truth: the National Hockey League’s coach’s challenge setup is a blight on hockey specifically, sports in general, and humanity in general…er.

Video review is a part of sports now, for better or worse. We really should be making every effort to get calls right, so it’s difficult to argue that video review shouldn’t exist at all. Ideally, the correct calls would be made in real time, by game officials, but the reality is that as the athletes get bigger, stronger, and faster, the games move faster as well, and as more eyes than ever are watching and more people have more at stake than ever – yes, I’m talking about gambling – getting every call absolutely, unequivocally correct is just about impossible.

On the other hand, I don’t think that any sport handles its reviews properly, which means that inevitably, despite having something like 294 camera angles available of every single play, officials still get calls wrong even after delays that often feel interminable. This turns people against video review.

The biggest issue, of course, is the technology itself. We ask officials to make calls in real time, at game speed, but we then review them frame-by-frame – that means 30 different images per second – and at that speed, almost any play will show some sort of violation for which it can be overturned. We’re talking about precision that goes beyond the control of the human body at that point; plays that are impossible to see with the naked eye no matter how good an official is and no matter their view of the play.

There’s another issue as well: coach’s challenges. By requiring a coach to challenge certain plays (in football, hockey, and soccer, all scoring plays are automatically reviewed), you are saying that those plays are necessarily more important than another. In sports, each play that happens has an effect on what comes after. A missed call at first base puts a runner on or erases one, and that changes the complexion of an inning. A missed penalty in the defensive zone takes a player out of the play and leads to an odd-man rush. The list goes on.

Put another way: which is a bigger play, one where a receiver catches a ball on the sideline and sprints 40 yards on third down to get his team out of the shadow of its own goalposts early in the second quarter of a scoreless game, or a dive by the running back to convert a fourth-and-one at the opponent’s 25-yard-line with three minutes to go in the fourth quarter of a one-point game?

If it’s close, the coach that comes out on the losing end of that second play is likely to toss the red flag and ask for a review. We’ll look at it from every angle, check when the knee hit the ground, did he have the ball extended over the plane of the blah blah blah, you get it. However, what you didn’t get is that the receiver in the first play had his heel on the sideline, and the catch and subsequent run shouldn’t have counted. But nobody caught it in time, nobody challenged, and the ball was snapped and play continued. What if that play sustains a touchdown-scoring drive in what turns out to be a 7-0 game? Whoops!

Listen, I get that you can’t hold a game up after every play for a video review. Football and baseball games are long enough as it is; they don’t need to be literal all-day events. But the idea of a challenge forces coaches to make a decision in the first quarter or the second inning that can hamper or even prevent a team’s chance to challenge a missed call later on. This is inexcusable to me in baseball. When we watch games on television, we have access to the same feeds that the review booth in New York does – by the way, I understand the logic behind centralized video review locations, but let’s get rid of those – and within 30 seconds of a close play, whether it’s challenged or not, we’ve seen it from four different angles and we know if the umpire got it right.

So why don’t we just have a fifth umpire in the stadium, watching the game on television either in the press box or in the umpire’s room, and when he sees a missed call, he just buzzes the crew chief or contacts him via an earpiece and relays that the play should be overturned. That way, every single play – and its potential effect on the outcome of the game – is treated with the same importance. This seems almost way too easy, so of course it will never happen.

I’m nearly 800 words into this, though, and I haven’t even addressed the main point of why we’re here: the NHL’s coach’s challenge system is far and away the worst in sports in just about every way possible.

First of all, NHL coaches can challenge the validity of a goal for three reasons: a missed offside call, goaltender interference, or a missed call that should have stopped play. But didn’t I say earlier that goals are already reviewed?

I did! It’s right here in the NHL Rule Book, Rule 37.2, which literally starts with the sentence, “Every goal shall be reviewed by the NHL Situation Room.”

(Okay, I will rescind my previous call for decentralizing video review if Wolf Blitzer is the one in the room making the calls.)

The rule goes on to list 10 different situations that are subject to review, including standards such as whether the puck crossed the line, whether time had expired, or if it had been deflected in with a high stick or the ol’ “distinct kicking motion.” It also includes reviewing a penalty shot or shootout attempt for an “illegal spin-o-rama move.” Yes, the official rule book of a major professional sports league contains the term “spin-o-rama.”

Coach’s challenges shouldn’t be necessary then, right? Well, they are, because nowhere on that list does “an offensive player interfered with the goaltender” appear. The rules seem to force a coach – rather, a team’s video staff – to decide if what happened constituted interference that went uncalled, or what was called interference should not have been. This makes no sense! Add interference calls to the list of calls reviewed by the Situation Room instead of making teams challenge.

Missed stoppages can include high sticks, hand passes, or situations where the puck hits the netting above the glass. First of all, if you miss the puck leaving the ice, hitting the netting, and then returning to play, then you might need to consider a career change. Second of all, on some level, this kind of makes sense, since I did say earlier that each play in a game affects the next. But then why force challenges in these situations instead of the normal “every goal is reviewed” process? And especially why force challenges on offside calls?

That’s because there is no limit to the amount of time between an infraction occurring and a goal being scored that renders a play ineligible for review. Under the current rules, you can enter the zone illegally, pass the puck around for 30 seconds, turn the puck over – so long as the puck doesn’t leave the zone – get it back, pass it around for another minute and a half, then score a goal, and the opponent can still challenge that the goal shouldn’t count.

And they will win that challenge! Seriously! Look at this, from Rule 38.9:

Goals will only be subject to review for a potential “Off-Side” infraction if the puck does not come out of the attacking zone again between the time of the “Off-Side” infraction and the time the goal is scored.

NHL Rule Book, Rule 38.9, “Applicable Standards for ‘Off-Side’ Challenge”

This is so patently ridiculous that I don’t think I even need to explain why, but from past arguments I’ve had with people, it seems I do. How can you justify allowing a team to have 30 seconds, a minute, two minutes, or even the entirety of a period, in a ludicrously extreme example given only to highlight the ridiculousness of the situation, to make a defensive play and then allow them to bail themselves out based on a missed call that happened as many as 20 minutes earlier? And in this situation, they can even possess the puck! In what universe does this make any sense?

If you’re going to allow for offside challenges – take your hyphen and shove it, NHL Rule Book – there HAS to be a limitation beyond “did the puck stay in the zone the entire time?” I don’t know that it can be time-based, because where do you draw the line? I don’t know that anything constitutes “enough time” to make the offside irrelevant when it’s the reason they were able to get into the zone in the first place. But if the defense gains possession, and then gives it back up, or even gets a stick on a pass and causes a loose puck situation, then that’s it. No more offside challenges.

You’d think that would be the worst part about the NHL’s challenge system. Oh, dear reader, your naiveté is adorable. You’re so cute. Yes you are! Yes you are!

No, the worst part about all of this is what happens when you lose a challenge. When you win, the call is reversed, and the coach feels “proud and good,” as Teddy KGB would say. Strong enough to beat the world.

But if you lose? Well, not only does the goal count – and that annoying goal horn blares again if you’re on the road – but you’re also assessed a two-minute penalty! We saw this in the Flyers eventual Game 6 win over the Islanders last Thursday. With the Flyers leading, 2-1, New York scored to tie the game. Flyers coach Alain Vigneault realized that it had been about 48 hours since he’d lost a challenge, so he decided to try again, and challenged that goaltender Carter Hart was interfered with. It was adjudged that he had not, and so the game was tied AND the Flyers were shorthanded for two minutes. On the ensuing power play, the Islanders scored again and took the lead.

In soccer, there’s a similar double jeopardy situation when a defender commits a foul inside the penalty area that earns a red card. In that instance, the attacking team is awarded a penalty kick, and the offending player is sent off, their team left with one fewer player on the pitch for the duration of the match. In some situations, this is unavoidable; a player guilty of violent conduct should be sent off regardless of where this happens, but is an intentional handball or the “denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity” – also called a “professional foul,” if you want to sound classy and in-the-know – really deserving of both a penalty kick AND a reduction in numbers? Probably not.

But at least that’s a very specific situation in which a player is going to have, literally, by definition, a clear and obvious scoring chance. In the NHL’s case, you absorb both punishments 1) regardless of which type of review you initiated, and 2) as a result of asking to be sure the call was made correctly, as opposed to the rule-breaking action of a player on the ice.

It wasn’t always that way; at one point, a lost offside challenge cost you a two-minute penalty, but you only had to forfeit your timeout if you lost a challenge on an interference call. Before this season, however, the league added the challenges for missed stoppages and made everything subject to the more punitive penalty.

Of course, they did do one thing right: by virtue of the rule change, teams were now no longer limited to challenging only if they had a timeout remaining (hockey teams receive one per game). And in light of what I said earlier about the arbitrary assignment of importance to certain plays, allowing for more review should be a good thing.

Except, in its infinite wisdom, the league decided that sure, you can challenge again if you were wrong, but this time it’ll cost you four minutes, and four minutes each time after that. The idea, of course, is to reduce the number of challenges, and encourage coaches to only challenge in the case of an obvious error. The Commissioner said so himself.

In short, the league has decided to dissuade coaches from encouraging on-ice officials, and those in the NHL Situation Room, to take a second look and get the call right. That’s preposterous, if you ask me.

Alas, they never asked me. They should have asked me. They always, every time, should ask me.

(And by rule, that statement is not subject to review.)

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