Whining Or Strategy? Why Coaches Complain About Officiating In NHL Playoffs

We're not even halfway done with the Stanley Cup playoffs and we've already seen coaches publicly complain about officiating. Are they whining or is there something more strategic in play here?

If there's one thing hockey fans can agree on just about every post-season, it's that the officiating leaves something to be desired. This year is no different, as fans and pundits from just about all teams -- playoff teams and non-qualifying teams -- feel that the officiating has been unsteady at best, and completely blind on both sides at worst.

What do the coaches think about this? They'll never let you know. Oh, they'll say things to the press, sure, but that's not how they're really feeling. No, that's a calculated judgement to invoke a reaction in fans, the officials, and the press. They may or may not personally feel that way too, but it doesn't matter; it's all part of gamesmanship (unless you're John Tortorella, then you just speak without the brain-to-mouth filter).

There are two primary reasons why a coach will complain to the media about officiating. The first is to divert attention from player failures, and instead put the spotlight on the coach and the officials. Think about it: If a team just collapsed by blowing a gigantic lead or failing to show up in a critical game, what do you think the coach would want fans to focus on?

Despite saying that players and coaches live in a bubble from media pressure, the truth of the matter (as San Jose coach Todd McLellan recently stated) is that they do see, hear and read the media's output. And when the media's ripping on the roster up and down, it affects at least some players, and that's something coaches would like to control.

So instead, they'll throw a few nuggets into the press complaining about officiating, a "missed" hit, or some other perceived whine. It gets their fan base fired up to focus on the refs, it gets the opposing fans to focus on the coach and it ignites the press to discuss the coaches remarks. In other words, it's the perfect deflection to let the players re-focus on themselves.

The perfect example of this was in the 2002 Olympics when Team Canada general manager Wayne Gretzky went on a nonsensical tirade about the world wanting Canada to lose. This was, of course, following a few mediocre round robin games from the Canadians, and instead of the media picking apart Canada's forecheck or special teams, they all wondered how and why Gretzky lost it?

After the tournament, Gretzky cheerfully admitted it was a calculated attempt to put the bullseye on him so that his team could focus on themselves, not what the outside world was saying.

The other main reason why you might hear public complaints about officiating is because the prior game may have had a lopsided number of calls. Again, the coach (and/or GM) may not actually believe that the game was officiated poorly, but the lopsided count opens a window of opportunity to lobby for a more "balanced" outcome in the next game. Officials aren't supposed to be swayed by the outside world, but they hear the chatter just like everyone else, and it could creep in even at a subconscious level.

The thing with this tactic is that any sort of logical rebuttal (like when the Chicago Blackhawks pointed out that the penalty rates in their series with the Vancouver Canucks were similar to regular season numbers) tends to be ignored by the media; instead, the media focuses on the provoking remarks.

When it comes to the media, NHL coaches know what they're doing. The spotlight is particularly heightened in the age of social media; it's so easy to create a distracting topic of conversation with just a little bit of stirring the pot, that it's almost amusing how quickly media channels walk right into the trap.

Just remember, the next time you hear a coach on the opposing side of a playoff series spout off about the officiating, he's not whining -- he's goading fans like you and the universe of newspapers, blogs and TV stations into thinking about something, anything other than the trouble his team is facing.

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