Hockey officiating has improved in recent Olympic tournaments, but inconsistency is a perennial source of friction, while uncertainty about how rules will be enforced can cost teams dearly. In 2006, for example, referees at the Winter Games in Turin were instructed to crack down on interference and obstruction, as the NHL had recently done. But the refs applied the new standard unevenly, whistling down infractions in the neutral and offensive zones, letting minor stick infractions go when teams were defending in their own end. In one memorable loss to Switzerland, members of the Canadian men’s team spent most of the game attacking, yet were hooked, impeded and generally frustrated by the tireless Europeans the whole time.
If there is controversy, it usually boils down to philosophical differences between the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), whose rules apply during the Olympics, and the NHL, which supplies the tournament’s best players. Despite the IIHF’s intention to prosecute interference as severely as the NHL does, European officials continue to give more latitude to stick checking—perhaps because it’s less effective on wider international-sized rinks. “They won’t call the silly little hooking penalties that you’re regularly seeing in the NHL, and that in my opinion shouldn’t be,” says Steve Yzerman, executive director of the Canadian men’s side. “On the other hand, if you hit a guy pretty hard but cleanly, there’s a good chance you’ll get a penalty. You may get a misconduct.”
In Vancouver, the teams will compete on North American-sized surfaces, which are 15 feet narrower than international rinks. Determined to keep the games fluid, the IIHF has issued a bulletin to officials stressing the need to penalize holding, hooking and obstruction. But the organization is also calling on refs to whistle down the sort of contact in front of the net that goes unpunished in North American leagues—cross-checks, petty slashes, bumps that knock players over. And that could prove particularly decisive in women’s hockey, where a ban on bodychecking makes any sort of contact stand out.
That said, no one expects a reprise of the women’s final of 2002 in Salt Lake City, when the Canadian women were forced to kill 13 minor penalties en route to a gold medal win over the U.S. Referees in women’s leagues are better trained and more experienced than in the past. On the men’s side, fully half the officials coming to Vancouver work in the NHL, which should enhance consistency. But once the puck drops, anything can happen, and the big game’s deciding moment may well come courtesy of someone in stripes.