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Groundhog Day: NHL Style
Play it again Sam. And Again. And Again. And…
1/12/18 - By Ryan Hall -

The NHL has a problem with Video Replay. While it has been an issue of hot debate over the past 12 - 16 months, video replay has slowly become a greater part of every NHL game. What started as a way to review goals, goalie interference, and fix missed calls at the blue line has turned into a circus show in which coaches are challenging offsides that took place 40 - 60 seconds before a goal was scored, and which have to be viewed from dozens on angles. Making things worse, in most cases the plays which are overturned are done so only by slowing the game down to milli-seconds and attempting to judge whether a skate blade was 1/16 inch, or less, off the ice. The result is good goals being called back, and the game adjudicated at a speed in which it was never intended to be dissected. Simply put, reducing the fastest game on ice to a frame by frame rehash is peering too closely at the wrong thing.

Here's why I say that:

In itself, Video Replay isn't a bad idea as it can allow egregiously wrong calls to be fixed. That was the intent, which is a laudable goal. However, the NHL has fallen into the trap that all major sports find themselves in, and that is when you start down this slippery slope how do you stop? Part of this is due, in my opinion, to a larger societal adjustment that is still taking place to technology integrating to the various parts of our lives. Consider the prevalence of distracted drivers with cell phones, pedestrians blindly walking into traffic while staring at those same phones, and the addictive properties that are being discovered in Social Media. This new technological revolution is infiltrating all aspects of our lives, and we're still trying to make sense of the brave new world in front of us.

During these transition phases, the common belief often becomes 'newer is better'. Since we have the ability to do something, then we should! This is the promotion for Video Replay review in the NHL, and on the surface it sounds great. After all, who wouldn't want to watch a game in which all the calls were 100% right and there was nothing left to skew the outcome except the performance of the players on each team? Lest you think hockey alone is wrestling with this, then consider the debate about computerized strike zones in baseball, a discussion which is rooted in the same utopian premise.

Except, I don't think this is something we really want in sports. As we are discovering with every soul sucking delay for replay, one of the great charms of competition is that it happens in real time. There is something special about watching spectacular plays as they happen, which is hard to replicate when we see them continually from every possible angle. Truthfully, most of the action isn't worth revisiting, which is part of what makes games on tv or streamed less appealing than attending them live. In person, the focus is on the moment and the future, while broadcasts tend to dwell on the recent past as well as the here and now.

But even more importantly is that most sports fans don't really care if a play was offside by .0003 milliseconds, of if a players' skate blade came of the ice by 1/16th of an inch as they crossed the blueline. The game was never meant to be viewed that way, and it certainly is hard to enjoy it under those auspices. It's even changing the way referee's and linesmen adjudicate things, which instructions to let the play go another second before blowing it down, so that replay has a chance to fix any mistakes that were made. Rather then a tool, Video Replay has become the final authority.

As mentioned above, the cost has been the enjoyment which comes from enjoying the moment. Human athletic achievement now comes with a caveat: Was he offside? Did he get both feet down? Did he come off the bag? In essence, we've become less concerned with celebrating what just happened, choosing to focus instead on using any miniscule measurement available to overturn it.

And here in lies the core problem: Video Replay has gone from a mechanism to fix errors into one that is used to punish opponents. The coaches challenge, for all the good intentions it might have had, is now one more way for a coach or team to give themselves a mulligan. No longer does replay right a wrong, as it has now become a tool to discredit what the other team has accomplished. Think how often you see an obviously wrong call made in a game of hockey, and which a challenge corrects? Then recall how many times a coach only challenges a play because they want to get their team off the hook, or as a roll-of-the-dice move on the off chance it might rob the opponent of a goal?

So, what's the solution? While there are several possible ways forward, to me the best one is to simply get rid of the coach's challenge. Yes, we have the technology, but there is already a strong precedent for deciding newer isn't better: baseball. We've all known for a long time that aluminum bats hit the ball further and harder, yet MLB has stringently refused to allow them in the game for a variety of reasons. However, the game continues to thrive, despite not adopting the newest and best technology. Hockey could do the same and simply rely on the judgement of the referees on the ice.

If that doesn't suffice, then why not handle all reviews from a central office. This would ensure that challenges happened in a more timely fashion, and would help take the punishment aspect out of the equation.

For those that would prefer we keep the coaches challenge, then why not tweak it? How about we say that any offside challenge which takes longer than 30 seconds to adjudicate fails? If you can't tell from a couple angles, then it's close enough to simply let it be. Or change the rule to say that clear, incontrovertible, evidence much be there in order to overturn the call; i.e. stack the deck in favor of the attacker.

While these may not be the best solutions, perhaps they can help get the conversation started on how to fix the system. Any and all ideas should be considered, as this is an issue that effects each and every one of us. The good news is that we should all have plenty of time to come up with suggestions, as we wait for the results of the next coach's challenge to be determined.

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