Fraser: The 'let them play' mentality in playoff games

Kerry Fraser
5/5/2011 4:27:15 PM
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Got a question on rule clarification, comments on rule enforcements or some memorable NHL stories? Kerry Fraser wants to answer your emails at!


Hello Kerry,
I was at the game in February 2004 between Ottawa and Toronto where the Leafs came back from a 4-0 deficit and the Senators' players had to keep running back to the dressing room with the flu. Before the game even started, though, I was happy to see that yourself and Bill McCreary were assigned to the game because at the time both of you were my two favourite referees in the league. I guess you know that you're a fan when you have favourite refs!

My question concerns the 'Let them play' mentality that we hear so often from commentators.  About a week ago, someone expressed his view that penalties late in playoff games should only be called if they are obvious or take away scoring chances. My own personal view is that a penalty early in the game on opening night should also be called in the third overtime of an important playoff game.  What's your opinion on the 'Let them play' mentality?

Thank you, Matt Dumas - Kingston, ON

Hey Matt:

Since the return from the lockout, it is generally agreed (for the most part anyway) that the ‘New NHL' is  a better product. A large part of the reason for that early success is the fact that there was a ‘buy-in' by all factions of the game that a new and more clearly defined standard would be enforced.

Penalties were expected to be called under this new direction as opposed to looking for reasons not to enforce the standard. This premise was carried throughout the regular season, playoffs and into overtime with the promise that the referees would not back off like we had done so many times before. To the credit of the players, officials and coaches it was working well once the initial learning curve took place and the game was better for it. 

Sound judgment always has to be exercised by the referee to determine what is and isn't a penalty but with more clearly defined rules of engagement, players should know what they can and can't do.  I am afraid that we are seeing examples in these playoffs of a backward slide.  This isn't a bash on my former colleagues. I believe it's the most difficult sport in the world to officiate. The worst place for a referee to get boxed into is the inability to call a penalty because of previous ones let go. It's like a snowball rolling down a hill that gathers momentum and gets bigger as the slide continues. There's no way to stop an avalanche of this magnitude unless a player shoots the puck over the glass or too many men play the puck for an accepted and expected penalty.

If the referee pulls a rabbit out of his hat and calls one that isn't as strong a call as what was let go everyone goes crazy. Been there and done that - it's not a pleasurable place to be and the game ultimately suffers.

'Let them play' generally means 'Let them cheat.' 

It's time to level the playing field and return to what created success for the ‘New NHL.'  Unfortunately, I don't believe that will occur until confusion over where and how a player can legally hit an opponent in the head – a.k.a. ‘the hitting zone;  North-South and good hockey plays.' Until then, let's cut the guys in stripes some slack (me included), hope they get some clear direction and we can all sit on the sidelines throughout the summer and the next round of talks!

The other part of your question stirs up a “C'mon Ref” flashback in addition to memories of the intense Leafs-Sens rivalry known as the Battle of Ontario. The events leading up to the game you attended in Ottawa on February 5, 2004 were straight out of ‘Slap Shot' and resulted in a special reassignment by Colin Campbell for me to work with Bill McCreary.  I was supposed to be in Colorado for a game against the Red Wings but was reassigned to work with McCreary, Hall of Fame linesman Ray Scapinello and Derek Nansen.

Every Leafs- Sens game had the potential to erupt into a bar room brawl dating back to Mar. 4, 2003 in the Sens' 4-1 victory when Chris Neil punched Darcy Tucker from the Sens players' bench.  All hell broke loose resulting in 163 minutes in penalties; a five-game suspension to Tucker for his part, along with three games to Tie Domi for his subsequent attack from behind on Magnus Arvedson.  From that moment on the fuse remained lit whenever the two teams met.

On Jan. 6, 2004, at the ACC, Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson rubbed salt in the wound of the Leaf Nation when he faked tossing his broken stick into the crowd in a mock gesture to Leafs captain Mats Sundin.  Sundin was serving a one-game suspension that night for firing his broken stick into the faithful seating area during the previous game. Alfie's act infuriated the Leafs players.

Their next bout occurred on Jan. 31 and the Leafs extracted some measure of revenge by beating up the Sens by a score of 5-1 and ‘licked ‘em in the ally' as Conn Smythe would have suggested.  In the process' the Leafs took eight penalties alone just by running at Alfredsson.  Before the night was over, Tie Domi had picked up 34 PIM's in just 8:27 worth of ice time. After Alfredsson was given a minor penalty with two minutes remaining in the game for kneeing Mats Sundin, Domi responded with just 25 seconds to go by attacking Shaun Van Allen.  Van Allen was wearing a jaw protection device and accused Domi of eye gouging during the fight. For his part, Domi picked up two minutes for instigating, five for fighting, a 10-minute misconduct, a game misconduct and two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct. Toronto's Nathan Perrott also received a five-minute charging penalty.  It was a nasty ending and set up the rematch in Ottawa on Feb. 5 along with changing my travel plans.

McCreary and I approached that game with the seriousness and intensity of a Stanley Cup final match. We had two great linesmen with us in Scampy and Derek Nansen, the guy we call ‘Popeye.'  (Beyond looking like the cartoon character, Derek is so strong he could break up fights on his own.) We were ready for action and all business.  McCreary and I gave both benches the evil eye stare when we took to the ice and not a smile was cracked.  Bill and I often joked later that we felt like two sheriffs riding into town to clean up on a gang of outlaws. Smoke might have even been detected blowing from our whistles once the game started.

I dropped the puck to start the game and we laid the law down early - 2:28 later to be exact - followed by three more quick penalties. It's a great feeling for an officiating crew to know that they have the players eating out their hands. That's how we felt from the early stages of that tilt. When the dust had settled they just played without incident. The Leafs roared back with four straight goals to force overtime and then won the game on an Owen Nolan slapper.

The officials never win games (only lose them) but I have to tell you on behalf of Bill McCreary, Ray Scapinello, Derek Nansen and myself we put a win in the books that night for the strong arm of the law. ‘Popeye' didn't even need to eat his spinach…   

Kerry Fraser

Kerry Fraser

Kerry Fraser is an analyst for the NHL on TSN and That's Hockey 2Nite on TSN2. As one of the league's most recognizable senior referees, he's worked 1,904 NHL regular season games and 261 playoff games during his 37-year career.

Got a question on rule clarification, comments on rule enforcements or some memorable NHL stories? Kerry wants to answer your emails at!

You can also follow Kerry Fraser on Twitter at @kfraserthecall!

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