NHL players have been hit hard by COVID protocols. So have the officials.
Retired NHL referee Tim Peel recently shared his concerns that the league might not have enough officials to maintain its schedule.
— Tim Peel (@TimCPeel20) December 27, 2021
Fear not, Tim. They’ve got a plan. Perhaps a few.
While the league has made no mention of reverting to three-man officiating crews, they’ve recently done so out of necessity.
The NHL used three-man crews – one referee, two linesmen – for over 50 years, from 1941-1998. Most, if not all, of the current roster has worked that configuration at some point in their careers.
There’s no reason this isn’t an option — likely the NHL’s first, since it’s already been in play, even on an emergency basis. If things get tough, it wouldn’t be too difficult to shift to scheduled three-man units as needed.
Players As Officials
If the league still doesn’t have enough officials available for puck drop, they can always turn to others already on the ice: the players. There’s already an NHL rule that covers this scenario.
If, through misadventure or sickness, the Referees and Linesmen appointed are prevented from appearing, the League will make every attempt to find suitable replacement officials, otherwise, the Managers or Coaches of the two Clubs shall agree on Referee(s) and Linesman(men). If they are unable to agree, they shall appoint a player from each side who shall act as Referee and Linesman; the player of the home Club acting as Referee and the player of the visiting Club as Linesman.
If the regularly appointed officials appear during the progress of the game, they shall at once replace the temporary officials.
Crazy? You’d think. Impossible? Not quite.
It happened during a snowstorm in 1983, when New Jersey Devils winger Garry Howatt and Hartford Whalers defenseman Mickey Volcan took the ice on behalf of the third team. From NHL.com:
On their way to the game from Boston, referee Ron Fournier and linesman Ron Asselstine got stuck in a snowstorm. So by the time both teams were ready to drop the puck, there was only one linesman available to officiate the game. Just 15 minutes before game time, linesman Ron Foyt assumed refereeing duties and approached each team about finding replacement linesmen.
“All of a sudden, [Whalers coach] Larry Kish said, ‘We’re going to have a player from each team and you’re going to represent our team,'” Volcan, who was unable to play that night due to a hand injury sustained in Hartford’s morning skate, said. “So we put on some sweats and black practice jerseys and they called us in to the room prior to the game. We sat down and he [Foyt] went through it with us.”
Fournier and Asselstine made it to the rink in time for the second period. Their emergency back-up officials were relegated to their respective benches.
This one’s unlikely — and certainly not planned — but a possibility if absolutely necessary.
Minor League Call-Ups
The National Hockey League has 45 referees and 40 linesmen under contract. That total includes a number of AHL/NHL officials who split time between the two leagues.
While there doesn’t appear to be anything addressing this in the NHLOA CBA, the league may be able to tap into the minor league officiating ranks on an emergency basis — provided the Officials’ Association is on board.
With minor league teams often located nearby, an emergency ‘call-up’ bench wouldn’t be out of the question. Ideally, you’d see the NHL officials handle the refereeing responsibilities, with an emergency call-up limited to linesman duties.
Officiating Is Covered
Of course, this is all worst-case scenario.
The officials are subject to additional protocol restrictions.
“Our officiating team has followed, and will continue to follow, all recommended guidelines aimed at protecting their health and safety as set by the NHL, local, state/provincial and federal agencies,” the league advised via email, per Marisa Ingemi of the Seattle Times.
While a number of referees and linesman have been held out of action, the league does not expect any impact to the schedule.
“We have had a number of officials going through protocol but have no issues at this time filling upcoming games,” the NHL told Andy Strickland.
NHL teams are set to resume on December 28. So are the officials.