It all started with occasional video review (upon referee request). As video quality and viewpoint abundance has improved, sports such as football and hockey wanted to take more advantage of their many unblinking eyes to get crucial calls right.

But, as the technology has continued to advance, sports leagues realized that there were unlimited matters that could be sent to the video adjudicators to consider. In football, it was not just whether a player caught the ball, but whether he had full control before his feet were out of bounds. The subsequent concern then became whether such constant reviewing and editing of all in-game referee decisions would slow the games down to the point of making them dull for fans.

It was then that the notion of player/coach challenges burst into our sporting consciousness.

For instances, tennis players and football coaches were given a finite number of challenges in each contest, such that they could request a video review of certain referee decisions. But, if their inquiry was proven wrong, it would cost them one of their challenges (and in the case of football, one of their valuable timeouts as well). Thus the challengers had to be frugal with their review requests and not spend them unless they were either confident or dealing with a crucial moment in the competition.

Perhaps to the surprise of the sports leagues, they quickly discovered a strange consequence of these participant challenges: the option added to the intrigue of their broadcasts because the question of whether a participant should challenge became part of the strategy of the game, and in turn something for the announcers to discuss with us between plays.

For professional football leagues such as the NFL and CFL, coaches’ challenges have been especially effective as entertainment-enhancers: football is a sport that it is divided into many individual plays that rarely last more than ten seconds.  As a result, the bulk of the broadcast is made up of the space between plays, where the strategy of the last iteration is up for scrutiny. Adding in the element of “challenges” has improved the nuance and significance of those discussions.

Similarly in tennis, where players can question line calls just after they happen, challenging has added a dimension to the between-play contemplations: players are analyzed not only on their level of play, but also their ability to wisely risk their challenges.

And so all was right and entertaining with video challenges in sport until the NHL tried too hard to get in on the scrutinizing of action.

Unlike football and tennis, which are made of short bursts of excitement punctuated by long pauses for analysis, hockey is a fluid competition. This is a crucial distinction. In football, each individual play is so short-lived that all challenges of questionable calls happen directly after they occur.

Such immediacy of fact-checking is important for athletic competitions to avoid becoming “Schrödinger’s sport” (à la that wacky philosopher’s strange thought experiment in which he claimed that a neglected cat in a covered box was both alive and dead at the same time). That is, if a play were allowed to continue indefinitely past the point of a possible referee error that could later be overruled, we would be living in a strange Schrödinger-like condition wherein the play would be both happening and not happening at the same time. So, even though the play would have been ruled admissible by the on-field referees, we the fans would be in the constant position of wondering whether a long-earlier missed call could cancel out all of what we were witnessing in the present.

To avoid this quantum state, when tennis players think their opponents’ shot has been erroneously called in, the skeptical player must stop the action immediately (and risk the point) in order to acquire a review: they cannot continue playing, and then retroactively request a video peak after the fact.

Consider, in contrast, then, whether either of the NHL’s two new coaches’ challenge options lead us to action that is both happening and not happening.

(1) Coaches can now challenge whether a goal occurred in concert with the goaltender being interfered with.

This is an understandable question to which we want the right answer every time. If a player illegally bumped into the goalie, then that is not only relevant to whether a goal should count, but it is a question that is asked immediately after the infraction. Well done, NHL: Schrödinger is kept at bay here.

(2) Coaches can now retroactively challenge whether a play that led to a goal was “on side” (that is, did a player enter the attack zone before the puck did?).

In this case, a play can be mistakenly ruled on side by the linesman, and can continue for an unlimited amount of time without intervention. If, however, the attacking players eventually succeed in their daunting mission to score a goal, the opposing coach can turn back the clock as far as necessary to check whether one of the goal-chasing players was a millimetre off side. Thus, Schrödinger is suddenly dominating our sport!

If, that is, the off side team manages to score a goal, then the game wasn’t actually happening because the goal will be called back, and all of the consequences of the play we were watching for, say, a minute will be irrelevant (and the game clock will be reset to the point of the linesman error). However, if the defensive team takes the puck away from the attackers, and manages to do something beneficial for their side (even scoring a goal), then the game was in fact being played all along. The defensive coach gets to hold onto this quantum challenge for as long as the play remains in their defensive zone or a goal is scored.

For more specific examples, when one team has earned a two minute power play, every second is potentially beneficial, so when one of these quantum off sides occurs, the defensive team can watch the time tick away with no risk of being scored against. One of the attacking players may try out a brilliant maneuver that he’s been saving for a crucial moment, and he may succeed, only to find out that the game wasn’t actually happening when he unveiled it.

Such a challenge option goes against the spirit of our viewing of the game. When a play is on or off side by a smidgen, the flow of the event is essentially the same whether a foot was on this or that side of the line. If the off side intervention is called as it happens, then so be it: the line was technically crossed illegally. But, when the play is allowed to go on, and we fans think we’re watching a play that’s been legitimized by the linesman’s call, our hearts and eyes are excited by each scoring chance. To have such a play finally achieve a brilliant success, only to retroactively employ a ruling that was missed much earlier, means the game we are watching becomes a continuous Schrödinger conditional.

An analog in tennis would be if players were allowed to retroactively challenge foot fouls. That is, when serving, tennis players aren’t allowed to touch the service line with their feet, so if the umpire catches the tiny infraction, then the play is stopped, and the player loses a serve (fair enough), but if said line judge misses the foul, then the wee advantage in foot position is not essential to the ongoing play. So to watch Federer make a great diving volley, only to have the play cancelled on the grounds that twelve shots earlier he nicked the line with his foot would be a sporting (and entertainment) abomination.

Moreover, note how the retroactive off side checking only benefits the defensive team and never the offensive team. That is, when linesmen make the mistake of calling a play off side (when in fact it was on side)—to the unearned benefit of the defensive team—there is no recourse whatsoever for the offended offensive team. The coaches can’t challenge that bad call because the play has already been stopped, and so we’ll never know what might have been. Many wonderful goals surely disappear from possibility each year because of this type of linesman error.

But, given that we’ll never know when such exciting results would have occurred, there is much less embarrassment for the on-ice officials if they accidentally help out the defensive team.  (In contrast, if they erroneously allow a play to continue, when in fact it was off side, and the offensive side scores a goal, the replays will damn them because of the knowable consequences of their error.)

Thus, it is already in the referees’ best interest to err on the side of guessing in favour of the defensive side if they’re ever unsure (and, in a game that happens as fast as hockey, such difficult close calls present themselves frequently).  As a result, many exciting offensive plays are stopped in a league that is already wishing it could talk its coaches into being a little less defensive-minded.

(As I argued in DEFENDING THE NHL, I think off side is an unfortunate rule because it disrupts the flow of a game that is currently dominated by a defensive structure, such that goalscoring is now at a dull 2.50 goals per team per game compared to 3.53 in 1992-93 and 3.95 in 1981-82. Thus, I submit that the NHL should get rid of the rule altogether. The similarly structured sports of basketball and lacrosse survive without off side and are much more exciting as a result. But, since the NHL is unlikely to remove this entertainment-hindering rule, it should at least avoid giving all of the benefits of close calls to the defensive side.)

At some point this season, there will be a moment that means a lot to the home ice fans: a player will score the greatest goal of his career, a long-time fan favourite will achieve a milestone marker, or a team will find victory in overtime to get into the playoffs, and then the fans will hear the dreaded words:

“The opposing coach is challenging [whether a minute ago there was a technicality that could retroactively overrule the play].”

I’m not sure I want to be watching when that happens.

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