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Fraser: Does heckling get under a referee's skin?

Kerry Fraser
12/6/2013 4:17:31 PM
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Got a question on rule clarification, comments on rule enforcements or some memorable NHL stories? Kerry wants to answer your emails at cmonref@tsn.ca!

Hi Kerry,

I was wondering what influence, if any, the home team fans can have on the on-ice officials? If a referee misses or blows a call, but it's not missed by the other 18,000 refs in the arena and lets the referee know about it by booing and such, does that impact any future calls or how the game is further officiated? Does the name calling and heckling by the fans get under your skin or just fall on deaf ears?

Always looking forward to your column,

Stephen Lee

Stephen,

In theory the objective of every sports official is to remain focused and in the moment, regardless of mistakes that have been made. Dwelling on a missed/wrong call or to be intimidated by the fallout from players, coaches and of course, the fans is a recipe for a ref to compromise his integrity and/or commit further errors. It is best to keep all mental thoughts in perpetual motion to allow your brain to function in the moment. A missed opportunity is one you'll never get back. A makeup call diminishes any credibility and respect that every official works so hard to achieve.

In practice however, we must recognize that refs aren't mechanical robots but human beings with feelings, emotions and individualized character traits. These traits are developed over a lifetime but especially during the early formative years. Positive and negative elements of an individual's personal makeup and self-worth are brought into the arena every game and will often dictate how an official responds in stressful situations. One of the most basic human instincts is a desire to be loved; okay maybe way over the top here but how about a need to be liked, appreciated and accepted?

If we can agree on that premise then, now place yourself as a referee in front of 20,000 out-of-control hockey fans chanting in unison "Ref, You SUCK," throwing debris at you and threatening your personal safety. How would that make you feel? More importantly, how would you respond? Would you have the courage and personal strength to stand tall in the face of adversity or would you give in to the pressure and alter your judgment in their favor? The flip side is, if you possessed a combative nature, stubbornness and/or arrogance as dominant traits, you just might stick it to someone!

What I'm really saying here is that the response and action taken by an official when he's pushed to the wall results from his unique internal makeup. All referees will rely on their strengths (skating, judgment, positioning, communication skills etc.) but I found it was most important to recognize my personal deficiencies and keep them in check. I never lacked courage but I recognized very early in my career that positive trait could quickly erode to a stubborn 'I'll show you' attitude that was very counterproductive once my authority was challenged.

I have observed a potential infraction and, as the information was being sifted through my brain, the crowd reaction beat my switch to pull the trigger, giving the impression that the crowd made the call. We have all witnessed situations (or been involved in them) when the ref has been jolted to a better sense of awareness as a result of the crowd reaction. Whenever the ref raises his arm, the call should be scrutinized based on its merit and not through the reaction time it took for the referee to make it.

I saw old-school referee Wally Harris (excellent ref and great guy) call an infraction that happened behind his back when he caught the reflection of the play in the glass. It was a legitimate infraction but unorthodox in Wally's detection method. Nothing ever phased Wally. A game was held up for over 20 minutes in the Boston Garden to clear debris from the ice that was thrown at this courageous ref.

While I experience many emotionally charged moments from fan vitriol, allow me to share one unusual incident. It resulted from ejecting Blackhawks coach Orval Tessier from a game in the Chicago Stadium just prior to him being terminated and replaced by Bob Pulford Feb. 4, 1984.

Tessier was feeling intense pressure with speculation of his imminent termination. His players were still smarting from the coach's public suggestion they required heart transplants from the Mayo Clinic. The comment backfired and their ongoing play reflected a seeming lack of interest. When Mt. Orval erupted to incur the game ejection, Hawk fans (21,000 strong) started throwing everything that wasn't nailed down. I was their intended target and the ice became a sea of debris. A chair even flew over the glass from the high-priced seats. I took safe refuge underneath the big clock above centre ice. Coach Tessier walked across the ice to make his way to the Hawks dressing room and slipped as he kicked at a popcorn box in his path.

My mouth was dry as sawdust and the blood felt like it had drained from my entire body, causing numbness in my extremities as 'shock and awe' rained down from the rafters in the Madhouse on Madison. My emotions were raw. I felt vulnerable and alone as Hawk fans did their very best to inflict some form of retribution against me.

Moral support then came to me from the most unusual of places. Captain Doug Wilson and alternate captain Bob Murray skated up to me. I was expecting additional protests to be lodged against me by the two captains. Instead, they thanked me for ejecting their coach and expressed a wish that I had done so earlier in the game! I thank them sincerely for the support they provided but suggested they should move away since the three of us made a bigger target and I feared for their personal safety.

When the fans had nothing left to throw, the rink attendants filled wheelbarrows with the trash and the game resumed without further incident. Buoyed in part with the support I had received from the Hawks captains, in addition to my personal character traits, I weathered the storm. I did not allow the fans to dictate what I called moving forward in that game.

After all, they had nothing left to throw at me!  

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 cmonref@tsn.ca!


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

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