NHL

Fraser: The one regret in addressing a player's whining

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Kerry Fraser
6/12/2011 11:38:41 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 cmonref@tsn.ca!

Hi Kerry,
 
Kudos to you and/or TSN management for coming up with the idea for your Q&A column. I think it gives some great insight. 
 
My question is:  How much of a difference do you see between now and when your career first started in regards to whining players?  HBO's Winter Classic 4-part series really opened my eyes up in regards to how much players whine and complain (especially Crosby). 
 
Do you find today's younger players are worse than those from years past?  I can't help but watch a game and sometimes think "Suck it up princess...quit your whining!" 
 
Was there ever occasion where you said something you regret to a complaining/whining player after getting fed up with constantly hearing him? 
 
Thx!
 
Todd
Burk's Falls, ON

Todd:

TSN management and I thank you for the kudos.

We are pleased that you, along with so many other readers, have expressed an appreciation for the unique insight that has become the trademark of this column in just a short time. With the Stanley Cup presentation a game or two away I will be wrapping things up very shortly.
 
I appreciate the opportunity that TSN and particularly the executive masterminds behind "C'mon Ref," (Mark Milliere & Steve Dryden) afforded me to share my perspective on officiating and the in-game segments with Steve Kouleas on That's Hockey 2Nite, throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs with James Duthie and the NHL panel and with the initiation of this column on the web site. My work with TSN has been a most rewarding experience as I continue to transition and attempt to find my way after 30 seasons on NHL ice.

The direct answer to your question is that players 'whined and complained' in my NHL rookie season in 1980 (probably for good reason) and continued right through to my final one in 2009-10. The game is emotional and highly competitive with much at stake. Player—referee relationships can quickly turn adversarial in nature with just one decision made by either side (good call-bad call, bad play, bad penalty, just to name a few).

Players and officials bring a certain set of learned skills (and deficiencies) when they arrive in the NHL. No matter how skilled that first round pick or franchise player is, there is a growth process that must take place.  Experience can sometimes be the best teacher. I often learned more quickly from bad experiences or poor decisions that I had rendered. The same can be true for players. One of the intangibles in our development is maturity.
 
Wayne Gretzky did not enter the NHL and become a phenom, he arrived fully formed. In many ways he was mature well beyond his years, but at times he was still just a kid, not unlike those who followed him - including Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby and others. All needed to scale a learning curve and endure some growing pains. Some completed the process more quickly than others. In the early stages of their careers they could all be accused of whining as well!

Officials also endure growing pains and learning curves in their development as well. I was a long way from possessing the maturity I now know is required to handle the pressure and abuse that often came my way. Unfortunately, when I was challenged on the ice, I did not always respond appropriately. I too had a lot to learn. The fact of the matter is that many young players whine. Grumpy veteran players can complain vehemently as well. Many nights Bill Guerin, when he was frustrated playing on some pretty bad NY Islander teams and Bernie Federko fell into that grumpy veteran category.
 
Heck, I had back-to-back games on consecutive nights with the St. Louis Blues when Federko was a star player for them. Bernie cursed at me going off the ice in St. Louis after the first game. He was the starting centre in Chicago the next night. After the anthem we assumed our position at centre ice and Bernie started cussing me out before I dropped the puck to start the game. I said, "Bernie, can you at least wait for me to drop the puck before you start whining?" Bernie, who now provides excellent insight as a television analyst with the Blues responded with, "Fraser why don't you just @#&*-off and drop the puck!" We were off to a great start that night at The Madhouse on Madison, much to the amusement of the Chicago starting centre.

Ray Whitney was always a fiery little guy and had a habit of flying off the handle quickly with me when things didn't go his way. That is until one night I got him laughing before the anthem was even sung. In a game a couple of nights earlier Ray gave it to me pretty good. I never knew whether to take him seriously or not because he was such a cute little twerp: you know, the kind you might place in your garden as a lawn ornament.
 
Well this particular night, I thought I'd get to him before he had the chance to give it to me. When the Hurricanes came onto the ice I blasted up to him and unloaded on him.

I said, "Whitney, you little @#&*#^&$$###@ twerp!" With a confused look on his face Whitney was taken aback and said, "Kerry, what's up with that?" 

I replied, "After the last game, I just wanted to get you first." Whitney broke into a laugh. From that point forward it was a race to see who could dump on the other guy first whenever I worked one of his games. Whitney is an excellent player, a great goal scorer and really a good guy. I miss our unique interaction and when he officially retires I might try and get a life size statue of him for my garden.
 
Confrontations between players and officials can go astray but usually are forgotten. Todd, you asked if there was one time I regret saying something to a player that complained or whined to me. That player was Super Mario.
He was the savior of the franchise when Pittsburgh drafted him first overall in 1984. He was under a lot of pressure to lead his team out of the wilderness. The team put added pressure on him by naming him captain just two years later.

As an extremely skilled player, Mario was way ahead of the curve. He didn't have much patience for the clutch-and-grab style that prevailed at that time. And why should he?  People pay money to see skill and grace, especially the type that Mario—and few other players of the time—possessed. Lemieux was a primary target of every restraining tactic utilized at the time and it caused Mario such frustration that he and I locked horn one night in his second year as captain.

Throughout the game, whenever he felt he was illegally handcuffed Mario gave me an earful. Finally he'd had enough and took matter into his own hands, delivering a two-handed slash to an opponent's leg. On the way to the penalty box, Mario chastised me for not calling the original penalty and stared daggers at me from the box. A power-play goal was scored and instead of skating to the Penguins bench, Mario headed directly to centre ice to confront me prior to the face-off. He tapped his stick on the ice at my feet in a mocking gesture and said, "Nice call."

At this point I'd had enough of Mario as well, and I unloaded on him verbally. I questioned his ability to be the captain of his team and that his teammates didn't even follow him. I pointed to Paul Coffey standing on the blue line and said, "If you want to know how to be a leader, take a look at that guy." Mario dropped his head and I dropped the puck. Who was I to question Lemieux and whether his teammates followed him as their leader?

Well it only took a couple of days later in a Pens game I had on Long Island for Mario to provide me with the answer. At the end of the first period, a scrum gathered. I blew my whistle loudly and instructed the players to break it up and go to their dressing rooms. They didn't respond, so I blew the whistle a second time, louder, and told them more intensely to break it up and get off the ice. They still weren't budging.

At this point, Mario skated in, looked down at me, and told his teammates, "C'mon, boys, let's go." They immediately obeyed the captain's command. As I stood there, I brushed away a feather from the side of my mouth from the crow I had just been fed by the captain of the Penguins.

In that moment, Mario was clearly in charge of his team, but more importantly, he let me know it. Mario was an incredible player. He saved that franchise on three occasions. Even as a second-year captain Lemieux deserved my utmost respect and an appropriate response to his complaining that night, neither of which I provided. 

That, Todd, is why I deeply regret what I had to say to Mario Lemieux that night in the Igloo.

Mario Lemieux (Photo: Ken Levine/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Ken Levine/Getty Images)
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