Five minutes into the second period of a 1-0 game between the Predators and the Red Wings, Detroit defenseman Jon Merrill got tripped by Nashville’s Viktor Arvidsson, who as a result got sent to the penalty box for two minutes.
At least, that’s what the box score tells you.
Pulling up the game footage from Red Wings–Preds tells a slightly more complicated story. First, there’s the matter of whether or not anybody was tripped. It sure doesn’t look like it. Though one could be fooled into thinking that a penalty occurred while watching live at full speed, slow-mo replay pretty clearly proves that Merrill just kind of fell on his own and Arvidsson caught the heat for it. It’s a bad call blatant enough to crack up Detroit analyst Mickey Redmond, who, in a bit of foreshadowing, noted that a microphone is picking up Arvidsson’s annoyed comments from the box.
“The referee got sucked in I guess on that one,” Redmond commented.
But even that wasn’t quite the whole story, which revealed itself after the penalty was over and the game went to commercial. On the Nashville broadcast—which now cuts to break early if you try to watch the replay on NHL.tv—referee Tim Peel was clearly audible on a hot mic as he admitted to, basically, wanting to screw the Predators.
“It wasn’t much but I wanted to get a fuckin’ penalty against Nashville early in the…” Peel says before the ads begin. (This was the Preds’ first penalty of the game.)
“Yeah, I know,” responds another voice, most likely the game’s other ref, Kelly Sutherland.
This isn’t a huge deal, in the grand scheme of hockey. The Preds won 2-0 anyway, and in terms of subjective penalties the calls were even. But a hot mic has consequences.
It’s the worst-kept secret in the NHL that referees get tighter or looser with their calls depending on the game’s circumstances, which can mean “letting them play” late in close games, or calling one team harsher to compensate for blown calls or non-calls earlier in the game that went the other way. Peel’s grave error was not, then, whistling a makeup call, which players and coaches and fans understand is how the world works. Where Peel fucked up was by forfeiting plausible deniability.
Because the NHL wants to maintain its larger, institutional deniability, it announced a mere 12 hours after his gaffe that Peel’s planned retirement at the end of the season will be coming early. His career as an NHL ref is over.
No NHL official has ever been fired for a single bad call, so this be a lesson for the zebras: Go ahead and keep whistling those makeup calls, which everyone knows exist. Just don’t get caught admitting they do.