As a new season begins, it's evident the game is changing. The players are younger, faster, smarter. Which means the Islanders, laughingstocks a decade ago (page 76) but now a dynasty (Scouting Reports, page 50), will triumph over younger, faster, smarter foes. In college hockey, source of the burgeoning NHL brainpower and manpower, they love James Patrick of No. 1 North Dakota (page 58). While nobody loves officials, knowing what makes them tick affords special insight into the sport.
"Officiating is a very unscientific profession."
—RON WICKS, NHL REFEREE
In the beginning was the Rule Book. And it was ignored. There's no sense trying to figure out exactly when that serpent got into the garden; the National Hockey League has played under its own unwritten rules for years. Suffice it to say the viper's still around. "If we went straight by the book," says Wally Harris, who has refereed in the NHL for 18 years, "we could call a penalty against each team every minute of the game. One hundred and twenty penalties a night instead of the 12 we average now."
The result—painfully evident during last spring's Stanley Cup playoffs—is approximately 108 uncalled rules infractions in every game. A two-minute hooking penalty in the first period becomes a fine defensive play in the third period. An elbow in the chops on Wednesday night is interpreted as good, tough hockey on Saturday. A cross-check across the backbone is a penalty everywhere on the ice except in front of a player's defensive net, an area that Referee Kerry Fraser describes as "a war zone." Most baffling is why refs tend to allow the so-called superpests—Quebec's Dale Hunter, Edmonton's Ken Linseman, Philadelphia's Bobby Clarke, Montreal's Keith Acton, for example—to use their sticks in ways that would result in penalties to most other players.
"Ask a referee why he calls a penalty one time and then ignores the same offense the next, and you'll probably get a bench penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct," says one NHL coach. "There's no point trying to figure out a certain referee's system. He doesn't have any."
Consistency. My kingdom for consistency! "Every referee is different," says a Chicago player. "I can't remember whether this one allows holding an extra second longer, or what he calls hooking. It's frustrating. One guy will let me get away with something one night, and the next night I'll try the same thing and another guy will call me for it."
Pitiful, pitiful. It's not that players don't understand when they're breaking the rules. They just can't anticipate when they'll be penalized for it. In the playoffs, play is even rougher, especially in the waning minutes of a close game, when most referees close their eyes and throw away their whistles. Over the 1981-82 regular season, Harris called virtually the same number of penalties in all three periods: 234 in the first, 233 in the second and 243 in the third. But in the nine playoff games he worked, he assessed a total of 57 penalties in the first period, 49 in the second and 18 in the third.
"There's a lot of money at stake in a playoff game," says Harris, who was widely criticized for allowing the Vancouver Canucks to clutch, grab and otherwise interfere with the New York Islanders in the first game of the most recent Stanley Cup finals. "Behind the net, along the boards, you're going to get away with a little more, sure. It's not taking away a scoring opportunity."
"The referees feel that they don't want to figure in the outcome of the game," says Scotty Bowman, coach and general manager of the Buffalo Sabres. "They want to let the players decide it."
And decide it they do—vigilante style. "If you go into the third period and the score is close," says one player for the Los Angeles Kings, "you can haul somebody down and the referee won't call it. He doesn't want to be the difference in the game, but what ends up happening is, he is the difference."
"In the regular season, if you just touched Wayne Gretzky you would get a penalty," says another member of the Kings, who lost five of eight regular-season games to Edmonton—Gretzky's team—last year but upset the Oilers in the opening round of the playoffs. "That wasn't true in the playoffs, and it really helped us."
"We're all guilty of the same thing," says Frank Udvari, a supervisor of officials for the NHL who refereed for 16 years. "In the last five minutes of a game, we're too careful not to call the marginal penalty. If you do call a penalty, the players, the general managers, the coaches all tell you the same thing: How can you call a penalty at that time of the game? A lot of times, rightly or wrongly, you take the path of least resistance."
One of the few officials who eschew that path is Andy van Hellemond, widely regarded as the best referee in hockey. In the 1980 Stanley Cup finals he called a penalty in overtime against Philadelphia, and the Islanders scored on the ensuing power play to win the opening game on the Flyers' ice. How could he call a penalty in overtime? screamed the Flyers, never for an instant denying that a foul had been committed. With eight minutes to play in the seventh game of last year's postseason series between Boston and Quebec, van Hellemond called Bruin Forward Terry O'Reilly for charging. When Quebec scored on the ensuing power play, one of the Bruins told van Hellemond, "Now you owe us one." But van Hellemond didn't oblige, and Boston lost 2-1. With two seconds remaining, O'Reilly hit van Hellemond in the face during a fracas. O'Reilly is now serving a 10-game suspension. As a result of that incident, as well as one earlier in the season in which Philadelphia's Paul Holmgren punched van Hellemond in the chest, the NHL—at long last—passed a rule this summer that calls for an automatic 20-game suspension for any player who intentionally strikes an official.
"They ought to throw the rule book out," O'Reilly said last summer. "It's a joke. The games are called differently referee to referee, game to game, period to period, team to team and player to player. If you're ahead by two goals, they'll call something they won't [call] if you're one ahead. If it's late in the game, they won't call something they called earlier. I think the game could be so much better than it is."
Stop right there. The game could be better. The purpose here isn't to embarrass NHL referees, individually or as a group. They receive little enough credit for their work as it is, and have received zero backing from the league office and club officials. No other sport asks as much of its referees, criticizes them as openly or abuses them as physically. After the Jets lost to Miami in the opening week of the NFL season, Jet Coach Walt Michaels was asked about the 13 penalties his team had been assessed. Michaels stated that if his club continued to take stupid penalties, it would continue to lose. When a losing NHL coach is asked about the infractions called against his team, more often than not the interviewer gets treated to a brief history of the referee's family tree—bananas and all. There are no stupid penalties in hockey, only stupid calls.
"In no other sport are referees charged so much with the responsibility of who wins and loses," says Udvari. "That's why we're such a focal point for criticism. It's been ingrained in players for years and years."
NHL referees are a focal point—period. It often has been said that the best officiated games in any sport are the ones in which the referees go unnoticed. NHL officials are about as inconspicuous as hot air balloons. While the two linesmen skate back and forth as if they were being chased by a madman with a carving knife, the referee struts and frets his hour upon the stage, often antagonizing players and fans by his very demeanor. Says one NHL general manager about Referee Bob Myers, "He could be the top official, but he's a bit of a show-off, among other things. He thinks the people paid to see him referee. They didn't."
Yet the NHL brass seems to encourage such flamboyance. Just in case an irate fan doesn't know whom he's screaming at, the league has put the names of the officials on the backs of their jerseys, contrary to the practice in all other sports, which identify them by means of numbers. "We used to have numbers," says Scotty Morrison, the NHL's chief of officiating since 1964, "but it was always assumed that the referee with the lowest number was our top guy, and the fella with number 35 was a rookie. So we decided to identify them [by name], and the response was immediately favorable."
Hockey fans are more likely to recognize a Wally Harris or a Bruce Hood than they are the starting center of the visiting team. Indeed, in no other sport are spectators so conscious of the officials and their respective reputations. One of the first questions asked in the stands at any NHL game is, "Who's the ref?"
That's also a prime concern of all coaches. To know what the standard of officiating will be on a given night is vitally important, because a referee can alter a team's game plan and style of play. When the North Stars faced Chicago in last year's playoffs, Minnesota Coach Glen Sonmor drilled his team in hooking and holding techniques after noticing that the refs were allowing the Black Hawks to get away with flagrant hooking and holding in the series, which Chicago eventually won.
In a more perfect world, officiating would be identical from one game to the next. That, of course, is impossible in any sport. But NHL President John Ziegler doesn't even seem to be striving for a more perfect world. In a television interview during the '82 finals, he appeared to accept cavalierly the vagaries of NHL refereeing when he said, "A foul is a foul only if the referee decides it is, based on the flow of the game, based on how he sees it and his position of view. Wally [Harris], we know, is a little more lenient and lets the boys play a little more than perhaps a Ron Wicks does. But that's their standards. We don't clone robots."
No mention of what the rule book says is a foul. Nope. A foul is a foul only if the referee decides it is. And that was no slip of the tongue by Ziegler; he was speaking accurately for NHL coaches, players, general managers, the Board of Governors, even the referees. "The rule book is just a guide," says Wicks. "If you called the game by the book, you'd be the only guy left on the ice." Adds Harris, "Every play's a discretion call. That's the whole problem with hockey."
Small wonder the referee is open for criticism—indeed, oral and written assassination—during and after every game. Inexplicably, the NHL also permits all players—not just the team captain—to argue with referees during stoppage in play, and the league doesn't seem to object when general managers and coaches harass a referee between periods. So, the referee has been stripped of his only ally. Quick, we must find him another.
The NHL uses three officials. The referee calls penalties and rules on goals. The linesmen call offsides and icings, and break up fights. This year, for the first time, linesmen also will be able to stop play if they see a goal scored or a major infraction committed behind the referee's back. That's a good change. It came about as a result of a game last season between the Flyers and the Islanders in which Harris was the referee and Ron Asselstine was a linesman. The score was 1-1 with about seven minutes remaining when Philadelphia's Bob Hoffmeyer speared New York's Dave Langevin in the groin. Harris didn't see the infraction, but Asselstine did. As a linesman, however, Asselstine had to wait until play had stopped to tell the referee what had happened. A minute and a half of continuous action went by before a Flyer shot hit the goalpost and Billy Smith of the Islanders covered the puck. The Islanders immediately converged on Harris.
"Boy, did you miss one."
"I didn't see it."
Asselstine skated up. "Wally...."
"In a minute," Harris said, returning to the argument. "I tell you, [Denis] Potvin, if I had seen it I would've called it."
"I said in a minute!" Finally, Harris turned to his linesman. "All right. What do you want?"
"I saw the play," said Asselstine.
"The spear. Hoffmeyer speared him. It should be a major."
"That's good enough for me," said Harris, and he gave Hoffmeyer a five-minute penalty. The Flyers, naturally, were up in arms, and their humor wasn't improved when the Islanders scored two power-play goals while Hoffmeyer was in the penalty box and won 3-1. All the confusion and arguing would have been avoided if Asselstine could have stopped play the moment he saw the spear, as he'll be able to do this year.
The point is, the referee doesn't see a lot of violations. The game is fast, players block his view, and to a certain extent the referee must follow the puck to determine when a goal has been scored. Although linesmen now can assess major infractions and a few minor ones (e.g., too many men on the ice), they still can't call the far more frequent occurrences of interference, tripping, cross-checking, hooking, elbowing and slashing that go on behind a referee's back. The obvious solution? Switch to two referees and one linesman. One referee would call penalties that occur around the puck; the other would call penalties away from the puck. The mere presence of a second ref would eliminate a lot of the cheap stuff that goes on in a hockey game, such as kicking the skates out from under an opponent and knocking his stick out of his hands.
An additional referee also would allow refs to stay in the sport longer. "I'm green with envy when I watch the Super Bowl or the World Series and I see that the chief referee or umpire is 52 or 55 years old," says Morrison. "I'd love to have a guy on our staff with 22 or 23 years' experience. But in hockey the demands are so strenuous that our officials are retiring at 45 or 46. Beyond that they just can't keep up with the play."
Witness pro basketball—it uses two referees, and 10 of its 28 refs are 45 or older, the eldest being 54. Lack of consistency is a major gripe of basketball coaches, too, but Cecil Watkins, the NBA's chief of referee development, believes that using two referees with equal authority helps maintain officiating standards throughout the league. Every few games he splits up the pairings so that one tandem doesn't go off on its own tangent. Everyone is in touch.
Not so in hockey. Currently, most referees work close to 70 regular-season games a year. After their week-long training camp in September, they seldom have a chance to see their peers work in person. No wonder standards are wildly divergent. Yet mention the idea of switching to two referees, and NHL voices rise as one. No bleeping way! "It would be chaos," says one coach. Adds another, "Right now you've got one guy messing up discretionary calls. You don't need two or three." Says a third, "One man can control a game. Two can't." And a fourth, "You'd slow the game down to a walk. You'd get three guys feeling they're important. Let one guy feel he's important."
O.K., O.K. Score another one for the immutability of the NHL. But, properly administered, the two-referee system would work, and we might see more referees, with an equal partner out there, bypass the path of least resistance.
Short of adopting a two-referee system, the NHL, Ziegler notwithstanding, should rediscover the rule book. "It's time officials called everything," says Buffalo Forward Craig Ramsay. "Let the whole league know there will be a change in the way they call violations. Go exactly by the rules. At first, most teams won't believe the refs will go strictly by the book. There will be a lot of penalties, power plays and scoring. Sooner or later, the guys who take a lot of penalties won't be playing because they'll be giving the opposition too many power-play opportunities. Then hockey will be played the way the game was intended. It will be a better game to play and to watch."
A better game. There's that phrase again. The thing is, better is in the eyes of the beholder. Philadelphia's Clarke would like to see the old days return. "If two guys took a shot at each other, [the referee] would say, 'O.K., now you're even,' and that was that," he says. "Now if you retaliate, the referees are all over you. They're more involved in the game, and they shouldn't be."
"In hockey, you get so many ideas how the game should be played," says Matt Pavelich, a former NHL linesman who's now a supervisor. "One guy wants it this way and one guy wants it that way—and we're supposed to be inconsistent. That's why we're on the firing line all the time."
Oh, so true, and, sadly, so inevitable. When a sport strays from its rule book, as hockey has, it lurches and stumbles like a drunk, unsure where it's headed next. You can hardly blame the players; they would be foolish not to go as far as the referees allow them. "The players have almost gotten to the point where they challenge you," says Morrison, "especially in the areas of interference in front of the net, interference away from the play, holding along the boards, and goalies hanging onto the puck too long. We discussed all that with our referees at training camp this year. We're being criticized for the non-call and it's time we were more aware of that."
"I think you'll see a difference this season," says Harris. "In the old days, a guy knew how much he could get away with in the third period, but now there are so many young guys in the league, they're taking advantage of our good nature. We'll have to send them a message."
"It's a changing profession," says Dave Newell. "It's gotten to the point where we've got to make the players aware we'll call the same penalties in the third period that we do in the first." A good step, and the referees seem sincere about enforcing a tighter standard this season. Of course, we shall see.
In the closing minutes of the final game of last season's Stanley Cup finals, the Islanders' Smith hit Vancouver's Stan Smyl in the face with his stick, cutting him. Harris, the referee, apparently didn't see the play, but the television tapes showed that Smith had struck Smyl deliberately. On the next shift, Tiger Williams of the Canucks retaliated by crosschecking the Islanders' Mike Bossy along the boards, nearly decapitating him. Again, no penalty was assessed. In a more perfect world, the league office would have reviewed both incidents and Ziegler would have fined and suspended Smith and Williams—both of whom have a long history of such behavior. Instead, silence. Now you're even.
"We can eliminate anything we want to eliminate," says Harris.
Now's the time to start.
The physical demands of NHL officiating are over and above those in other sports.
Van Hellemond has paid for being the best.
Morrison's officials are far more in step with one another at camp than during games.
Harris' pitch: All calls are discretionary.