Fraser: Referees' judgment and standard of enforcement

Kerry Fraser
5/14/2012 4:43:49 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!


Having seen so many NHL games whilst in NHL cities (especially my Sharks), I have always wanted to know at what point in the game do the calls become more lenient.  I'm not suggesting that you or any referee puts their whistle "in their pocket," but some "borderline" calls clearly don't get called with 3 minutes left of an important tied game at the same rate they do at the beginning of the game.  I know every referee never wants to be perceived as dictating the final result, so how did you handle this situation…where you see a "minor" minor penalty towards the end of an import game (i.e. playoff game)?

Best of luck at TSN!  I still remember your call when I was younger (much younger) getting mad at you during the 1992-93 Stanley Cup Finals (Kings v. Canadians) when you called a penalty for too much curve in the stick against a Kings player but have grown to have a tremendous amount of respect for you (and you were right on that call)!

Shane Hauschild
London, U.K. 


I am thrilled to receive your question that found my C'Mon Ref mailbag all the way from Jolly Old England. The answer (or absence of a definitive one) 'Old Chap' is bound to create some debate amongst the readers and bloggers of this column.

At least one thing we can likely agree upon is that the NHL rules are most often written in the sand of an hour glass (or game clock) and not in stone; especially in the playoffs.  The Referees' judgment and ultimate standard of enforcement can be affected to various degrees by the score, time and the importance of the game. Infractions that resulted in a penalty being called earlier a game may not be deemed a penalty with the score close in the late stages. The extent of liberties that players feel they can take is directly proportional to what the referees allow through a relaxation of their standard.

I do not believe borderline or marginal infractions should be called at any time in a game.  The game temperature might require that the referee impose himself and set a tighter standard to establish or maintain control early in a game. As the game is played out, the control factor might only require minor maintenance depending upon how the players respond. 

When the game is on the line, however, what was previously perceived as a legitimate penalty call can cross into the borderline or marginal category through a redefinition in the minds of many within the hockey community beyond just the referee(s).  The notion to let the players decide the outcome of the game (and not the referee) is steeped in a history somewhat unique to the game of hockey.

I have always felt that common sense and logic must be utilized in applying the rules to allow for an entertaining flow of the game. However, by not calling an obvious penalty infraction (if observed), I also believed the referee could ultimately play a part in determining the outcome of the game.  If the referee(s) fails to do his job, inconsistency is created at the very least. In extreme cases, the referee boxes himself in as one non-call leads to another and the inmates can end up running the prison. It then becomes almost impossible to call a penalty beyond a delay of game for the puck being shot over the glass. This unenviable position occurs whenever the ref puts his "whistle in his pocket," Shane. 

Fortunately we have not seen this take place in these playoffs as frequently as we did last season. In the Kings-Coyotes game last night, while there were some minor inconsistencies, I felt the two guys did a pretty good job in calling what the game required. The players were allowed to compete hard and play on the edge. This series will create a challenge for the referees of future games as player animosity intensify to allow the game to be played on the edge while maintaining an acceptable level of control.

I have always maintained that the best way to achieve an acceptable level of control is when the players know the limit that the referee sets throughout the game. An expectation and even fear is established in their minds that a penalty will be called if they cross the line as opposed to assuming that one likely won't be called. The onus should be clearly on the players to remain disciplined within these guidelines the referee has set. When they commit the crime they should expect to do the time in the penalty box. It is the referee's job to establish the limits and to enforce the rules in an acceptable manner. When they do so, the referees should not be blamed for the undisciplined or irresponsible actions of a player. That, of course, is in a perfect hockey world that is yet to be achieved.

Prior to Game 3 of the 1989 Stanley Cup Final between Montreal and Calgary, I was instructed by Director of Officiating John McCauley that he wanted me to bring the series back to an acceptable level of control and to lay the hammer down if necessary. His directions were clear and I called a number of penalties in the first and second periods. The penalties tapered off as the players got the message and played hard and on the edge, but in control. No penalties were called in the third period or first overtime.

We had just about completed the second overtime when Montreal forward Shane Corson was five feet from the side boards and facing them just inside his end zone. Corson had just shot the puck up ice as I observed Calgary forward Mark Hunter coming to finish a late check on the back of Corson. I had sufficient time given the separation between the two players to think almost out loud, " Veer off Hunts! Don't finish; don't hit him!"

Shane Hauschild from London in the UK, I must tell you that I saw in advance this hit would not be good. I did not want to have to impose myself and call a penalty at this stage of the game in the second overtime.  Mark Hunter made solid contact to the back of Shane Corson and drove the Canadiens player head first into the boards. I immediately raised my arm and assessed a boarding penalty.

The Flames killed the penalty (barely) as the Canadiens were buzzing all around goalie Mike Vernon.  Mark Hunter had just exited the penalty box and entered into his defensive zone but had not yet joined the play when Montreal scored the game-winning goal. Many questioned how I could call a penalty "at that time in the game." John McCauley answered the press by stating that he would have been upset if Fraser or any of his referees had not called a penalty on that obvious infraction.

Shane, the answer to your specific question is that there isn't a referee who wants to be perceived as dictating the final result of a game by calling a penalty.  When a player's actions cross the line and he commits an infraction the referee must do his job first by calling a penalty and accept the fallout that might result later.

My hope is that the refs whistle remains on his finger and not in his pocket and he will be given credit for doing his job in situations that call for the assessment of a penalty at any time in the game.

For a personally autographed copy of Final Call from TSN hockey analyst and former NHL referee Kerry Fraser, visit The Book Keeper website.

For a regular copy of Final Call from TSN hockey analyst and former NHL referee Kerry Fraser, visit here.

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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