Perhaps more than any major team sport, hockey is a game of change. The players change, the styles change, and the rules change. The rules change for two reasons in particular. First, because everything else about the game changes, rules must be implemented to keep up with the times, as it were. Second, IIHF and NHL executives are, more than in any other sport, not afraid to tweak the rules in an attempt to improve the game however possible.
These two factors culminated less than a decade ago in the decision to bring in the four-man officiating crew, or, more to the point, the two-referee system. But even that has changed over the years of its existence. Originally, the two referees were deemed important to catch fouls back of the play. In other words, as play moved quickly up ice, and the single referee bolted full steam to keep up with the puck, there were fouls committed behind the play that were going unnoticed and, as a result, unpunished.
But very quickly it became obvious that very skilled and accomplished referees were falling behind with the play because players had become so incredibly fast. In the 1970s and even into the ‘80s, there were many players who were excellent skaters – and many others who weren’t. Today, even the most defensive defenceman or most checking of forwards is an excellent skater, in every top league, in every top nation.
In the old days, a 40-year-old referee was easily as good a skater as many players. Not so anymore. As a result, referees from centre ice have been calling penalties deep in the offensive zone because the low referee isn’t in the best position to see the play, even as it involves the puck carrier. Today, play simply moves so quickly from one side to the other that the referee in the offensive zone cannot possibly get into position all of the time to see play clearly.
At first, players and fans were confused, wondering why an official at centre ice could call something an official only seven or eight metres from play didn’t call. The answer: superior angle.
And then there have been rule changes to speed things up. Think of the two-line offside and the stretch pass. Nowadays, these lightning fast 20-year-old players can make a pass from behind their goal to the far blue line. Where in the world would one official station himself properly to see all aspects of play?
Fast forward to Vancouver 2010, which was the fastest hockey tournament ever played. For sheer speed and skill, the defining example was surely Canada-Russia in the quarterfinals. The game was dominated by the Canadians, and for the first 40 minutes they moved the puck at such speed, up and down the ice, wing to wing, that even two officials had to be at their best to keep up. Players today are too fast and too skilled – not to mention too shifty – to require a single ref.
Referees are a rare breed, and no teams want a big game decided by rookies. In truth, learning to ref at the highest level takes many years, but by the time a top ref is 35 and ready to officiate that gold medal game, he is past his prime skating-wise to keep up with the Crosbys and Ovechkins of the playing world, at least on his own.
Two referees today is so essential, it is impossible to think of top games being reffed by only one man any more. The game is too fast. The four-man system, which only a few years ago created controversy, now seems standard by anyone’s perspective.