The Fallacy of "Let 'em Play" and Return to Clutch and Grab

This is how it starts.

The idea is simple, and one you hear in many sports, "the refs are letting them play". The idea seems to stem from the theory that by equally NOT calling apparent penalties on both sides, the game will be not on the lips of the officials, but in the hands of the players.

Sounds right, doesn't it? Three problems with this theory... 1) It doesn't work in hockey, 2) it helps the worse team and 3) it's killing the sport. (again)

It Doesn't Work in Hockey

When a ref decides to "let 'em play" he is making the choice of lowering the bar of discretion to only calling "egregious" penalties. Essentially, only things that you "make" him call. I'm not sure if that really can work in other sports (perhaps it can), but it doesn't in hockey, because there are mandatory penalties in hockey. These are penalties the refs can't use their discretion on, and are ones they are unable to weave into the nature of the game... i.e., whether or not this particular infraction raises to the level of egregious.

Penalties like high-sticking and delay of game are two they have no discretion about. They HAVE to call it.

The problem is that you have now taken the mandatory penalties, which tend to have little to do with the competitive balance of the game, and given them much greater significance. And you've also done the exact opposite of what you were trying to do. You've caused a massive shift in the game towards one team, on what is essentially chance. In an effort to remove some measure of chance in the way you call the game, you've introduced a different, and much more significant amount of dumb-luck to it. Well done.

And since they tend to "Let 'em play" in the playoffs, buckle-up folks, the dumb-luck only gets worse from here.

It Helps the Worse Team

By the very nature of sport and competition, the idea that two teams are identically matched, is ludicrous. The idea that they would take penalties at the same rate, is just as silly, and undermines the idea that penalties are supposed to restore the advantage the more skilled/harder working team should have. When a team is being outplayed, they are going to have to resort to taking penalties. When you put the whistles away, you are letting them get away with more than the other team is.

Thus, you are effectively leveling the playing field for the worse team. Perhaps that's not a bad thing in the eyes of the league, since it might make for more competitive games when there should be a more obvious distinction in talent and end result.

The downside of that idea is that the more skilled teams will win less often, and you are taking away from the excitement of the game.

It's Killing the sport. Again.

This is how the clutch and grab era began, and how it is likely to return. "Letting 'em play", is essentially code for "we're not going to call anything unless you MAKE us call it". Sounds a lot like the path directly towards the days of not calling obstruction and interference.

I am worried for the sport, and think that while they've made great strides in player safety this year, the direction and oversight of officials still seems to be woeful, and that a strong officiating system is crucial to holding on to the gains they made post-lockout.

I LIKE more powerplays. I LIKE seeing guys speed through the neutral zone, unencumbered. I LIKE seeing defenseman have to be excellent skaters to be able to play in this league. I LIKE MORE OFFENSE.

Perhaps the league doesn't.

(As I was typing that last paragraph it occurred to me that my second sentence - speed through the neutral zone - might be a possible reason they are letting some of the calls go... as part of the "slow down the collisions, for the sake of safety" discussion I've been hearing more about lately. It's a bit tiny-foil-hat ...ish... but possible I guess.)

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