Does the ethnicity of a referee influence the penalty calls made in hockey?

That's a question a researcher at Brock University decided to tackle using his background in math.

Kevin Mongeon has co-authored a study with Neil Longley that looks at ethnic bias in NHL refereeing.

The Lakehead University alumnus said he wanted to try and quantify something that many in sport have believed for some time: that ethnicity impacts penalties.

Kevin Mongeon

Brock University's Kevin Mongeon co-authored a paper that tested for ethnicity discrimination among NHL referees. To do so the researchers analyzed more than 2.6 million player shifts. (Brock University)

"Our study looked at discriminatory penalty calling, with respect to ethnicity of referees," said Mongeon.

"English, French, European and International players have found that French referees tend to call more penalties on English players, as compared to French players."

The methodology the researchers used was complex.

The study analyzed player shifts through the course of three seasons — about 2.6 million player shifts.

"One of the things we wanted to really get after with this paper was taking into [account a lot of the] game factors that could potentially influence how a player plays — and whether they cause the penalty, rather than the ethnicity mix or interaction of the referee and player," Mongeon said.

"And by that I mean things like the score, the game and whether a team is more aggressive, because they are up or behind, and how many hits they had in the game."

French Refs have bias

Kevin Mongeon's and Neil Longley's 2015 research results "are broadly consistent with the prior discrimination literature and are intuitively reasonable within the context of the historic French–English tensions throughout Canada’s history," the study says. (photo credit HHOF)

Historical tensions revealed?

Mongeon said the results of the study confirmed that, when it comes to penalty calls in hockey, ethnicity is a factor.

"When two French referees are on the ice, English players get called for more penalties compared to French players," said Mongeon.

"The study doesn't actually analyze where the games are played and that's a little bit difficult because there is only one team in Quebec."

He said the co-author of the study had done a lot of work on ethnicity discrimination in the NHL prior to the study and had hypothesized an historical French-English tensions beyond hockey might get reflected in the league.

"Refereeing is a very difficult job where they have to make continuous, fast, difficult decisions'," he said.

"Those are instances where it might come out in their decisions, compared to situations where they have a lot of time to think about it."