Skip to main content
Original Issue

Theater of the Absurd

When officials refused to work a Devils-Bruins playoff game, it was amateur hour in the NHL.

Someday, Paul McInnis, Jim Sullivan and Vin Godleski will be able to tell their grandchildren they worked an NHL playoff game. Isn't that special? Paul, Jim and Vin were the replacement officials for Game 4 of the Wales Conference finals Sunday night, though considering what their presence did for the league's image, they might as well have been named Larry, Curly and Moe.

"Just when you thought you've seen everything in this league...." said Rick Middleton, the Boston Bruins' 14-year veteran, after the New Jersey Devils had defeated the Bruins 3-1 to even the best-of-seven series at two games apiece. "It's a shame."

A shame—and worse. The league made a laughingstock of a sold-out playoff game on U.S. and Canadian television, with one team two wins from competing for the league's precious—but now undeniably devalued—Stanley Cup. In fact, slapstick is what Game 4 became the moment the amateur officials took the ice at New Jersey's Meadowlands Arena for their warmup laps at 8:45 p.m., an hour after the puck was to have been dropped. The three—all very nice men who usually work as off-ice officials for the league—were told they would be handling the game at about 8 p.m., 10 minutes after NHL referee Dave Newell had pulled his crew off the ice in what amounted to a wildcat strike. Newell, who happens to be the president of the NHL Officials Association (NHLOA), acted in response to Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld's appearance behind the bench after he had been suspended by the league for his confrontation with referee Don Koharski following the Devils' 6-1 loss in Game 3 on Friday night.

Schoenfeld lashed out at—and, depending on whom you believe, did or did not shove—Koharski. He was irate over a late first-period call that left the Devils a man short for four minutes. Schoenfeld intercepted Koharski as the referee stepped off the ice. The conversation quickly got ugly. As Koharski walked down the runway toward his dressing room with Schoenfeld close behind, the referee appeared to stumble, his right skate straying off the indoor-outdoor carpet and onto the slick concrete. Koharski immediately accused Schoenfeld of having pushed him.

Koharski then shouted, "You're through! You'll never coach another game in this league!"

"You're crazy—you fell, you fat pig," replied Schoenfeld. "Have another doughnut!"

Moving quickly, apparently to appease the NHLOA, whose contract the NHL must renegotiate this summer, the league suspended Schoenfeld for Game 4 and possibly longer. Instead of flying from Montreal, where he is headquartered, to New Jersey to assemble those involved for a hearing on Saturday, NHL executive vice-president Brian O'Neill reviewed some of the evidence—Koharski's and Schoenfeld's accounts and eyewitness testimony but not, at least according to the Devils, the videotape of the incident—and made his decision. It was at this point that the league made its essential error: The NHL didn't give Schoenfeld and the Devils a chance to personally and fully present their version of what had occurred before it suspended Schoenfeld. Around noon on Sunday, O'Neill telephoned Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello with his verdict. Lamoriello wanted to appeal, but O'Neill told him that wasn't an option. O'Neill told Lamoriello that only NHL president John Ziegler could overturn the suspension. But Ziegler couldn't be located.

"We found the referee's report untrue," Lamoriello said. "Jim hadn't been given his due. Our rights give us due process."

Lamoriello spent four hours Sunday afternoon attempting to contact Ziegler, before finally deciding he "was getting nowhere." Lamoriello then set about obtaining a temporary restraining order to keep Schoenfeld behind the bench that night. Lawyers for the Devils located Judge J. F. Madden of the Superior Court of New Jersey, who granted the order.

The lawyers rushed to the arena and served that order to John McCauley, the NHL's supervisor of officials and the ranking member of the league hierarchy on the scene, just before game time. Schoenfeld would coach the Devils. As a gesture of solidarity with Koharski, Newell and linesmen Ray Scapinello and Gord Broseker took a hike.

Game time came and went. Ziegler's whereabouts remained a mystery. So it was left to William W. Wirtz, president of the Chicago Blackhawks and chairman of the NHL's Board of Governors, to instruct McCauley by telephone to make certain that the game was played, regardless of who officiated. McCauley hastily gathered the replacement crew. McInnis, who would referee, borrowed New Jersey forward Aaron Broten's spare skates, while Sullivan and Godleski, the linesmen, wore yellow practice jerseys.

This unseemly chain of events was all but inevitable given the NHL's wont to clam up when its dignity is bruised. Koharski refused to comment after Friday's game. League spokesman Gary Meagher would only say that Koharski would report to O'Neill that night. On Sunday, O'Neill announced in a formal release that Schoenfeld was suspended for verbal assault and for blocking Koharski's exit. The question of whether he pushed Koharski would be decided later. O'Neill was unavailable to discuss his ruling.

Lamoriello's determination to get O'Neill's decision overturned will not endear him to his NHL brethren. How could the Devils disobey an official NHL ruling? Should Ziegler have interceded, as Peter Ueberroth did when baseball's umpires struck before the 1984 World Series?

That brought up the most incendiary question of all: Where was Ziegler? Had O'Neill spoken with Ziegler before suspending Schoenfeld? "I can't say," said Meagher. "He always has in the past." Ziegler was rumored to be in Bermuda, Detroit, London and Moscow—or aboard a Concorde. Everywhere except New Jersey.

Schoenfeld's punishment came unusually quickly and was much harsher than had been expected, considering standard NHL procedures. It seemed clear that the league did not want to appear to be a patsy in comparison with baseball, whose A. Bartlett Giamatti, the National League president, last week suspended Pete Rose for 30 days for shoving an umpire.

"I didn't see what Pete Rose did," said Schoenfeld on Saturday. "I know what I didn't do." He added that he felt "exonerated" by the tape of the incident. He thinks the Devils have had an undeserved reputation for pugilism among officials since their penalty-marred series with the Washington Capitals in the previous round of the playoffs.

Before O'Neill's bombshell announcement, Schoenfeld said, "I will be shocked if I miss any coaching." Certain he would not be disciplined, he said, "I've seen coaches and G.M.'s chase refs off the ice, wait for them outside the referees' room and chase them out of the arena. If I'm going to be disciplined here, there is a gross inconsistency."

Indeed, when Los Angeles Kings coach Larry Regan punched referee Bruce Hood in the face in 1968, Clarence Campbell, the NHL president at the time, fined him $1,000; Regan was not suspended.

"Consistency is the issue here," said Schoenfeld, correctly noting that officiating in the postseason has been anything but. Before the playoffs, coaches were briefed by officials on exactly what would be called. "If we're told something is going to be called, we'll pass that on to our players," said Schoenfeld. "If the game won't be consistently called, I don't want to be told it will be."

Neither team could complain very much about the job the substitute officials did on Sunday night. O.K., they almost lost control of the game in the second period, when three fights broke out simultaneously. They also missed a couple of dozen offsides, and McInnis pretty much put his whistle away in the third period. But as Boston general manager Harry Sinden said, "The margin between officials we plucked out of the stands and officials we pay a great deal of money to was incredibly minimal."

Once Game 4 got under way, it belonged to New Jersey goalie Sean Burke. Burke had won the overtime Game 2 for the Devils with a Ken Dryden-like performance, denying the Bruins repeatedly. "We had some absolutely prime goal-scoring chances," said Boston defenseman Ray Bourque after the Bruins' 3-2 loss. Rookie Doug Brown scored the game-winning goal almost 18 minutes into OT.

Burke's boffo effort precipitated a fresh flood of Dryden comparisons. As was Dryden, Burke is a tall, hardworking goalie. He hails from Toronto, Dry-den's hometown. Now here was a new parallel: In his rookie season of 1971, Dryden had been poison for Boston. Hockey historians recalled his stonewalling of the heavily favored Bruins in Game 7 of the Cup quarterfinals. After Dryden made still another save on Phil Esposito, Espo shouted, "You thieving giraffe!"

In Game 3, Burke robbed Boston of goal after goal through the first 20 minutes. Then the Bruins, capitalizing on the Devils' sluggish defense and lax back-checking, beat him with a passion, scoring three times in 73 seconds. The onslaught came after Koharski made the call that would send Schoenfeld over the edge.

And a strange call it was. Koharski correctly nabbed Kirk Muller of New Jersey for holding, and then Pat Verbeek of the Devils and Keith Crowder of Boston squared off. At first Crowder "turtled," refusing to fight. Verbeek backed off. Then Crowder came up swinging. Verbeek followed suit and inexplicably got the extra two minutes, after which Boston quickly put the game away. All three scores were set up by Bourque, who was also a leading reason that the Bruins ousted Montreal in five games in the previous round. Another was an aging goaltender named Rejean Lemelin, a Calgary Flames reject who is as consistent and unflappable as a gargoyle.

Boston signed Lemelin last August as a free agent. One thing Bob Johnson, Lemelin's coach in Calgary, didn't like about Lemelin was his synthetic foam leg pads, which are 50% lighter than the traditional leather pads. Another was his age; he's now 33. "The pads have added two years to my career," says Lemelin. But they were so—so newfangled. "Leg speed has always been my strength," says Lemelin. "So the book on me was, try to beat him up top. With the pads, I have the confidence in my leg speed to delay. I don't commit until the shooter does."

By never flopping, Lemelin has taken the top shelf away from opponents. Indeed, throughout these playoffs, in which his goals-against average after Sunday's game was a minuscule 2.34, the book on Lemelin has been: Cross your fingers. He could not be blamed for any of the Devils' three goals in Game 4.

"It was tough for the team that fell behind," said Middleton. "They were pulling us down late in the game there, but he [McInnis] put his whistle away."

"The blame lies with the [regular] officials," said Sinden, whose only choice, once the word came from Wirtz, was to play or forfeit. "Nothing, nothing should get in the way of their working a game."

"This game was a cross between football and Irish rugby," said Boston coach Terry O'Reilly. "It's a shame we have to suffer for a problem created by the New Jersey coaching staff and exaggerated by the officials."

The fallout from the Devils' challenge to the league began immediately. On Monday, Newell had declared that unless the league upheld the suspension, the officials would refuse to work the balance of the playoffs, starting with the Edmonton Oilers-Detroit Red Wings game that night. Later Monday, the NHL rescinded Schoenfeld's suspension pending a hearing in Boston before Game 5 Tuesday night. The officials then agreed to work the Edmonton-Detroit game.

While Ziegler, whose Sunday whereabouts still had not been disclosed as SI went to press, remained inaccessible to the media, he took part in conference telephone calls with O'Neill Monday.

"We're selling a product," the league president is fond of saying.

Maybe so, but now the NHL is selling damaged goods.