The state of reffing in the NHL

It was, actually, very difficult to figure out which refs I thought were
‘best’, or drop it down below about ten names. But then, most of you
consider me a ref apologist already anyway, so that won’t surprise you.
But — people have to realize that reffing is an imperfect system under
difficult situations, so mistakes are gonna happen.

More importantly, though, I think people need to realize that the league
dictates how it wants the game called, and a lot of stuff I see fans
gripe about,l it’s clear the league wants it done that way. How can you
tell? When multiple refs call something consistently one way or another,
then the league is dictating it be called that way. Blame the league,
not the refs.

The players have a lot of say into the quality of the game. Bad hockey
begates bad reffing. Good hockey begats good reffing (most of the time).
When a team is playing badly, it does more things that need to be
called; if anything, most nights, refs cut a struggling team as much
slack as possible, because nobody likes a game with 18 2 minute minors
in it, and it makes them miss their dinner reservations…

A final note: please remember our seats in san jose are three rows off
the glass. That means we get to see a lot of the one-on-one stuff, and
Laurie’s a pretty good lip-reader (and I’m so-so). We get to see some of
the subtle interactions that go on, especially when play is stopped.
this definitely affects how we view the refs, but it also seems to me,
if a refs job is to manage a game, how well they manage the people IN
the game is a key to their success or failure.

My three best refs:

Veteran division (> 100 games reffed at start of this season)

Mark Faucette
Steve Walkom
Don VanMassenhoven

Why: These three refs have something similar in common: they all
have a presence on the ice, but that presence never dominates the
ice. They’re all good at maintaining control of the game and keeping
the game moving, without dictating the game. They all have their
strengths and weaknesses, but I think all three handle the game the
way I’d want the game handled, if I were playing.

Honorable mentions:

Kerry Fraser – best in positioning. his main weakness is a tendency
towards occcasional, really visible floopers. Most of the time he’s
a great ref. His mistakes tend to be very noticable.

Bill McCreary – Another good ref. He especially has impressed me with
his willingness to work with the junior refs, both and cheerleader
and mentor. Not all senior refs are so, well, enthusiastic about the
junior refs.

Terry Gregson – watching him ref a game this weekend, I suddenly
realized what he reminded me of. Gregson comes across to me as the
grampa on the pond watching the neighborhood kids play — and he
treats the game that way. His skating style is quite distinctive,
and lends itself to this interpretation. Gregson should take this as
a compliment, by the way.

Rookie division:

Shane Heyer: Liked him as a linesman. So far, I think he’s coming along
well as a young ref. Unlike refs brought in from other leagues, he
knows the speed and intensity, and that gives him a leg up. He needs
to be more assertive (but most of the rookie refs need to be).

Mike Leggo: As I was going through the list of refs looking for names I
wanted to mention, I finally realized that unlike some of the
younger refs (like Joanette), I finally realized I’d seen Leggo ref
a number of times, and didn’t have anything bad to say about him. In
actuality, I’ve seen him in person at least three times this season,
and on TV another four or five times — and he’s a solid ref that
reminds me a lot of Walkom.

My three least favorite refs:

Veteran division

Dave Jackson — One thing I watch closely is how players react with
jackson. The word that comes to mind with Jackson is “arrogant’.
Many nights, it’s as if the players bristle as soon as they see him
on the ice, and I find jackson very weak at managing game flow or
keeping games under control when the games get edgy. He tends to
wait too long to clamp down, then clamps down too hard. If the
players reaction to him says anything, he’s not their favorite, and
his interactions with the players aren’t team-building (the way a
Paul Stewart will take the time to explain things to players, for
instance).

Mick McGeough — A good ref with a bad temper. Okay, a decent ref with a
bad temper. I’ve seen numerous games that go along this lines:
McGeough makes a call. Players yap a bit. McGeough gets angry.
Something else happens. Another player yaps. McGeough’s neck (and/or
face) goes red, and he starts yapping back. Sometime after that, bad
calls start. There are certain players that also seem to be on
McGeough’s list. It’s a common joke in San Jose that when McGeough
refs, Bryan Marchment ought to just start the game in the penalty
box. While there are nights when Mush probably SHOULD — McGeough,
IMHO, goes beyond “not cutting him a break”, and refs a biased game
against Mush. If he could manage his temper, he’d be a good ref. But
from what I’ve seen, he can’t, and he lets his temper affect the
games he refs — and that’s not acceptable to me.

Dave Jackson (again) — if it wasn’t obvious, if there was one ref I’d
throw out of the game…

Dennis LaRue — Just doesn’t seem to be able to hack the speed of the
NHL game, IMHO. His positioning is weak, he tends to be behind the
play, and I’m just not impressed with how he calls a game.

Rookie division:

Marc Joannette
Tom Kowal
Both of these baby refs just seem overmatched by the NHL. In a
couple of games I saw these guys ref, they were almost dangerous to
the players and themselves. This is not, I should not, to be
considered a fatal flaw. Anyone who remembers the early days of
Steve Walkom’s NHL career probably wouldn’t believe he’d end up high
on my list of refs. But right now, I’d take these two and put them
in a lesser league for more seasoning. Neither one is, IMHO, up to
snuff in the NHL right now.

What makes a well-reffed game, my opinion:

I agree with most of what other’s have said: I want to see refs who
aren’t afraid to make calls that need to be made, but don’t get bogged
down in calling trivia. You don’t want to go home talking about the ref.

Now having said that, I’m afraid many fans judge a ref based on how they
treated the home team: far too many fans think anyone touching “their”
guy is a penalty, and “their” guys don’t ever commit penalties (some
players sure feel that way, also. I believe Chris Pronger thinks he’s
never committed a penalty in his career. keith Tkachuk is even worse
about whining about obvious penalties).

the reality is: players have the ability to fight for a puck. Penalties
occur when one takes an unfair advantage to win that fight, not just
because he knocks someone on their butt or off the puck. Which is okay,
until it’s our guy falls down (as I like to say, if it’s Tony Granato,
he’s a tough, gritty player. If it’s Jeremy Roenick, he’s a goon…)

Things I look for when evaluating refs:

o Do they keep the game under control? Or does it spin into street
fighting? Some nights, nothing matters, but over time, some refs
consistently manage games, and some refs — don’t.

o Consistency: in many different directions: do they call against both
teams fairly? Are penalties in the first period penalties in the third?
Are there players they pick on? Or cut excessive slack to? (I ought to
note, however, that there are situations where slack-cutting ought to be
done. A power forward, by definition of their game, is going to have
many fewer rough/slash/hold/etc calls made based on players ON them,
because that’s waht they dish out. Within reason, I have no problem with
refs using “as ye sew, so shall ye reap” in dishing out penalties, too.
Teemu Selanne or Mike Modano don’t play the same game as Bob Probert or
Doug Weight. I have no problem at all giving Weight more slack, but he
has to accept being slacked, too…)

o Interaction with the everyone else on the ice. Some refs have a good
rapport on the ice. Some — don’t.

o Presence. Unlike some, I do NOT have a problem when a referee injects
some personality or presence into a game: to a point. In the early- to
mid-90’s, it was fairly common to see a “kerry fraser” game or a “Paul
stewart game”. Stewart, being an ex-player, had a very good feel for how
players wanted a game called, but it was no coincidence my nickname for
him was “no blood no foul”. He let the boys play. Other refs — didn’t.
This is a Good Thing; similar to different rinks having differing
characteristics: the four of us who remember the Cow Palace, or people
who remember the old buildings in Chicago and Boston, understand what
I’m getting at here. In football, the different stadiums allow you to
build teams that benefit from the environment they play in. In today’s
hockey, they’re trying to standardize all of the refs to the same game
style, and all of the buildings are basically the same now. I do NOT
consider this vanilla-ization of the game to be good. it makes things
more generic. Nobody could question the “home ice” advantage of Boston
Gardens or the crowd in chicago. Both are gone in today’s NHL. And it
used to be some refs called games that were more to one team’s
preference than another; as long as referee placement is unbiased, I see
that as another way to build some complexity and variability into a game
rapidly being forced into vanilla pudding status. (note: I am not
saying then referee should FAVOR one team or another. But by having
different referees calling games somewhat differently — within the same
standard parameters — adds flavor to the game.

The bottom line, however, is “did he bias the game? did is decide a
game?” — and it needs to be noted, the ref that decides a game through
a NON-call pissed me off more than the ref that decides a game through a
bad call, because the ref making the non-call didn’t have the guts to
amke that call in a key situation, and IMHO, those refs shouldn’t be on
the ice.

What’s wrong with the NHL?

I think the NHL is generally doing a good job. I think the two ref system is
a big improvement on the single-ref ssytem: the key advantage of the second
ref is not, in fact, the penalties he calls, but the infractions that don’t
happen because the players knows he’s watching. The amount of
behind-the-play garbage is down significantly, and that can directly be
attributed to the second ref. Players just don’t take that sneaky shot, or
trip a defenseman trying to get back in the play, or any of that garbage
nearly as often as they used to, and that’s good for the game.

There’s a fair amount of criticizm laid at the two ref system. some of it is
valid: inconsistencies between refs, a tendency towards being too passive by
the junior refs, certain logistical issues — are all valid issues. But they
are mostly technical tweaks. As the junior refs mature and everyone gets
comfortable with the system, these issues will work themselves out.

What bothers me about some of the griping of the two ref system (and a good
example of it is the Sabres TV announcers, who I generally enjoy listening
to…) are their griping about broken things that were broken (usually
worse) under the one ref system. The two ref system isn’t a panacea. It’s
not a failure because it didn’t fix everything overnight. There are still
problems in the game. And most of those problems aren’t the refs: they’re
there because the refs are told how to ref things, because that’s how the
players, and the coaches, and the board of governors (mostly the GM’s) want
it done that way. And yes, in many cases, those are the same people griping
about it later. The refs can’t win…

Which leads me to, of course…

How to improve reffing in the NHL:

Which mostly boils down to “how to change the rules and interpretations to
make for a better game”

First on my list is: consistency. I don’t believe team-bias or player-bias
consistency is a major problem, but period-bias is. If it’s a penalty in the
first, folks, it needs to be a penalty in the third. Whistle swallowing is
the NHL’s biggest problem, and I think it is the majore creditbility issue
with refs, and the second-biggest for the NHL in general to the outside
universe (after fighting).

Referees have to get out of whistle-swallowing late in a game. set the tone
in the first. Maintain that tone to the last buzzer. Referees don’t want to
“decide the game” — but the non-call STILL biases the bloody game; it only
biases it to the team willing to break the rule and take the chance on a
penalty. Which teams do, because they get away with it so often. And that
leads to teams pushing the rules elsewhere in the game, beacuse, well, they
can get away with it, and they get rewarded. Penalties are penalties. Too
bad refs don’t see it that way. All this does is encourage late-game
thuggery, and the thugs tend to win the battles and the games too often. If
the NHL is trying to get the “skill” players to shine, this, not
interference issues, is the first one to fix, because late in the game, how
is a skill player supposed to shine when Zdeno Chara has wrapped his arms
around him and is sitting on him in the faceoff circle? And you know that 8
times out of ten, Chara (or the guys like him on every team in the league)
won’t get called.

A side-issue of this is the power play. Referees have to come to grips with
the reality that if it’s a penalty during five-on-five, it’s STILL a penalty
during a power play. Again, the referee’s unwillingness to call that second
penalty only encourages thuggery and hurts the skill players.

A penalty is a penalty. A penalty is not “a penalty except during power
plays or late in the third period”. Until the referees are told clearly to
change this, and are supported by the league and GMs when they do — reffing
is going to look biased to the non-fan or casual fan. And they may well be
right. I see this as a huge problem in trying to get the NHL accepted by the
general public. Can you conceive of the NFL condoning situations where a
referee stops calling holding because the game is late and they’re trying to
keep within the three hour TV window? But the NHL is, basically, doing that,
and legitimizing it. And it’s not the refs. it’s a lack of support from the
league, especially the board of governors, when the refs TRY to. So they
stop trying.

After consistency, we need to fix interference, once and for all. I
definitely do NOT enjoy watching hockey games with 15 or 16 minor penalties,
and in general I’m in favor of letting stuff go that doesn’t impact the
play, but that doesn’t imply that I’m in the “if it’s not a scoring chance,
it’s not a penalty” camp some fans (and refs) are in.

If you want to bring the game back to the skill players, you have to do
something about interference. If you don’t, you’re giving the game to the
thugs, the skating area rugs and the water skiers and grappling hooks.
Referees could solve a lot of the problem by getting serious about calling
penalties when players impede someone trying to get back in the play. We’ve
all seen it: the play turns over and transitions. You get a three on two
building in center ice, and one of the three gets picced and is out of the
play. Or a defender tries tog et back, and an offensive player hooks and
skis behind him, slowing him down. These all impact plays, by not allowing
the play to develop in the first place. The referee can’t wait until someone
is in the slot to decide the interference is impacting the play, they have
to get serious about stopping this stuff any time it happens. I’m actually
more tolerant of the holding and stuff that goes on in the offensive zone,
since most of it are various aspects of fighting for the puck. Defensive
zone and neutral zone interference, away from the puck, I’d say “no
tolerance. none. zero”. I’m actually pretty happy with how the offensive
zone is called these days, though. Once the fight for the slot begins, let
them fight it out. Don’t, however, let them prevent that fight from
beginning with interference behind and away from the play.

Then let’s fix high-sticking. I’m a real bastard about protecting the head.
There have been just too many eye, face, and head injuries, too many guys
lost to concussions. Because of this, I have a no tolerance for any hit to
the head, or any stick to the head. it’s really simple, IMHO: any elbow or
forearm that contacts the head is a five minute major. We’ve all see these
hits far too often, when a player (and yes, Bryan Marchment is one of them)
comes in elbow first, aimed at the ear. let’s get serious about getting
those elbows down. you want to hit shoulder to shoulder, great. You go in
higher, go to the box. In a similar vein, ANY stick to the face or head is
four minutes. Blood is five. Flagrant hits are five and a game. Until the
league gets seriosu, the players won’t. Make these hits hurt — and the hits
will go away.

I’d also like to know when cross-checking became legal in the slot? If you
watch older games from the 70’s and even into the 80’s, when a defenseman
tried to clear the slot area, it was with his body and shoulder. Somewhere
along the way, defensemen got taught to simply take the stick and pound the
crap out fo someone until he falls down or gets the hint and leaves (Chris
Pronger is a great example of this, but he’s one of dozens….). And
referees let it happen. Cross-checks are supposed to be illegal. Start
calling them. Defensemen will gripe like crazy, because some of them will be
unable to clear the slot using their body strength, but you know what?
That’s how it ought to be. I’m very tired of watching repeated, uncalled
kidney shots, and it happens pretty much every game, every night.

The league also needs to get serious about slashing — just ask Pavel Bure.
I don’t mind a slash to the stick, or even (within reason) to the leg pads
as part of a defensive play. But, touch the hands, touch the arms — go to
the box. There’s a lot of dirty slashing (Vinnie Damphousse is a master at
it) that shouldn’t be allowed, and it leads to injuries. This ties in to
some degree iwth the whole issue of interference: slower guys use the stick
to beat down faster guys that otherwise, they’d have trouble defending.
Here’s a hint: improve your defense. My motto: use a stick, go to jail. For
at least two.

I’ve got some other thoughts, but these are the major ones. Let’s fix them
— and then see what still needs to be fixed…..