Last Tuesday on Hockey Night In Canada, Ron MacLean commented that the NHL should not have allowed a Quebecois referee to officiate Game 4 between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens. He cited the fact that the game was in Montreal, and that there was a controversial call in Game 3 made by a French referee, a call MacLean himself supported after it happened.
He later apologized, saying that any ref from any region shouldn't be put in a situation where they could be biased towards the home team, but the damage was done.
While there was outrage, there was also agreement with MacLean's comments. But no one has actually gone forward and investigated whether French referees have a bias towards the Canadiens in Montreal. So do they?
Are the Canadiens favored at home?
To answer this question, I went through five years of game data with Concordia University professor Stephane Brutus. We first have to understand that over the last five seasons in the NHL, there has been a natural bias towards the home teams when it comes to doling out power plays. 20,168 power plays have been given to home teams in the regular season, with only 18,657 power plays being given to road teams. This means that on average, a home team should expect to receive 51.9 percent of the power plays over this large, five-year sample.
During this period, the Montreal Canadiens have received 50.7 percent of the power plays given out while on home ice, so we can immediately write off the narrative that Montreal receives more calls because of the raucous crowd inside Bell Centre.
What about by French officials?
However we can go even deeper than that. Let's look at all the Montreal games officiated by Francophone referees employed in the NHL from 2009-14 in the regular season.
Those referees include Stephane Auger (no longer an active ref), Marc Joannette, Justin St. Pierre, Frederick L'Ecuyer, François St. Laurent and Francis Charron.
The Canadiens received just 50.5 percent of the power plays given out in games where French referees officiated, below their average numbers over the time period in question -- though by a slim enough margin to be considered random.
Montreal vs. the other 29
Going a step further, we can compare the bias each referee (aside from Auger) had in favor of the home team in the 2013-14 season, using Scouting the Refs, to their personal biases in Montreal. Doing so, we get the following figure:
Aside from Charron, who is the least experienced ref in the bunch, and who has officiated just five games in Montreal in five years, every single official has a stronger bias towards the home team outside of Montreal than in Montreal.
The only reasonable conclusion to be made here is that these guys are professionals, aren't rattled by the crowd, and if anything, call the Canadiens tighter than other teams in order to combat the idea that they could be biased to their hometown team.