The Stanley Cup is safely resting in Boston while the ominous dark cloud of smoke from the post-game fires and tear gas in Vancouver has blown out to sea; hopefully never to return.
The end of the 2010-11 NHL hockey season is cause for The Final Call that I will make on the TSN web site for this season as well. I want to use this last column to acknowledge some people, reflect on several issues that were brought forward during our time together here and, as always, welcome your final comments.
Steve Dryden, Managing Editor with TSN contacted me in December and pitched a segment he wished to create for me that was eventually titled, "C'mon Ref," to appear on That's Hockey 2Nite on TSN2 with host Steve Kouleas. While only appearing in studio every two weeks in the beginning, I was excited about the opportunity to share my unique perspective that I had gained from 30 years as a referee in the National Hockey League. This cutting edge approach to hockey programming analysis by TSN -Canada's Sports Leader - was so well received by you, the viewing audience (as tweets and blogs verified) that "C'mon Ref" appeared on-air almost nightly with James Duthie on NHL Hockey for the first month of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It was while I was in studio during this first month that I spoke to Steve about connecting with you through a truly interactive column on their website. Mark Milliere, Senior Vice-President, Production gave the project his blessing and Kelvin Chow was assigned to set up the mail bag, sort, provide your questions to me and post my answers. Your response to this column was overwhelming and we thank you.
Before getting to some "tough calls" that I need to make, I want to say that I have enjoyed your thoughtful, civil (for the most part) responses in expressing your opinions on officiating and the game in general. You are the lifeblood of the game and deserve a forum to be heard or at times vent. I haven't ducked any of your questions that were provided to me and I apologize if any questions you submitted did not find their way past the mailbag. I can tell you (as my wife can verify) that I spent considerable time every day with these responses in an attempt to provide honest opinion along with an educational and entertaining read to your questions.
I have most appreciated the fact that many of you have come to understand the degree of difficulty and nuances involved in hockey officiating a little bit better and along the way have expressed some added measure of tolerance for NHL officiating. While we've seen just how imperfect NHL officiating can be, there has been an acknowledgment from your end that these guys are human and attempting to do their best in a system that definitely needs re-tooling. (More on that later in this writing).
In an effort to provide factual content I want to clarify an error that I made in my May 6th column in answering a question asked by Devin Mazur on how much cussing is allowed on the ice. In my response I reported that only two players (Craig McTavish & Kelly Chase) had the distinction of being assessed "the whole ball of wax" by me throughout my entire career - 2 min. unsportsmanlike conduct; 10 min. misconduct; game misconduct & gross misconduct. I later learned this to be inaccurate when 'Chaser' appeared on Off The Record with Michael Landsberg. He came up a little short on the whole ball of wax and only provided me with enough for one ear full when, in back-to-back games, a gross misconduct was assessed. The second one prompted a telephone call to me from Brian Burke, Sr. V.P. of Hockey Ops to tell me what a great guy Kelly Chase was, what a great coach he would make some day and to be a little more tolerant of his enthusiasm from the bench. I have to agree with Burkie, having seen another side of Chaser from the Blues broadcast team - Kelly Chase is a great guy and I want to set the record straight on this one. He certainly doesn't need me padding his penalty minutes total and most of minutes he got were majors for fighting. Sorry for the oversight. MacT, on the other hand, now holds the undisputed distinction of receiving "the whole ball of wax" the only two times I assessed it in my 2,165 NHL games.
I received a telephone call from another former NHL tough guy last week, big Jim McKenzie; remember him - he was the only other player besides Wayne Gretzky to thank me for giving him a penalty. Jim needed the penalty minutes for a bonus in the last game of the season when his coach didn't put him on the ice for one shift. It was on the way off the ice after the game ended that Jim asked if I'd give him a 10 minute misconduct if he told me to F-off? While I never got any of the bonus (nor should I) we can still laugh about that night as though it was yesterday. As a matter of fact, Jim invited me to be part of the "Laugh Festival" in Montreal on July 29th with him and a couple of other former NHL tough guys that are going to be on stage telling war stories. I guess they need a ref in case it gets out of hand? Speaking of laughs, Jim acknowledged that his father isn't real computer savvy but knows just enough to get on the TSN web site and pull up the C'mon Ref page every day and "laughs his butt of every time he reads the column." Thanks for joining me Mr. McKenzie and please keep on laughing.
Rule 48 is certainly no laughing matter and I want to touch on the subject of head hits. I firmly believe this is the biggest problem facing the game at the present time. On October 19, 2010, I was invited to speak as a guest lecturer at the Mayo Clinic Hockey Summit in Rochester, MN, on the subject of head hits and concussions through the invitation of Dr. Michael Stuart (father to three NHL players Mike, Mark & Colin) and Dr. Aynsley Smith, the facilitators of this event. My presentation topic was to center around rule enforcement. The top medical specialists in the field were also presenting their findings from extensive research they had compiled on hockey related concussions and head injuries. It opened my eyes and mind to the seriousness of these concussions and how adversely they affect not only a player's career but his quality of life after hockey.
I spoke in the last time slot on the first day of presentations and dropped a bomb on the NHL. While I commended the NHL for crafting Rule 48 to address blind side hits to the head, I expressed my opinion that it fell short of the mark due to the league's position taken that North-South hits to the head were still considered legal. I am most passionate about this issue because as a referee I felt it was one of my primary functions to maintain a safe environment for the players to perform in.
It was just four years earlier that I had assessed two game misconducts, one to Steve Begin of Montreal and the other to David Koci of Chicago, for knocking out players with direct hits to the head in separate games I worked that season. Both of the players that were hit in the head were carried off the ice and suffered concussions.
The day after each game, then V.P. of Officiating, Stephen Walkom called and advised me that they (Walkom & Colin Campbell) deemed each play to be a "good hockey hit." After the second rescinded game misconduct, I warned Walkom that if that was the position they were taking, to mark my words that in three or four years they would have more players forced out of the game just like Eric Lindros, Keith Primeau and others. Additionally I stated there would be public outcry and adverse public opinion that they would not be able to defend against.
The culture of devastating high hits has persisted and many players have become victims of this 'good hockey play' mentality as careers remain in jeopardy. I'm not talking about 'sisifying' the game or about me being right. What I'm talking about is Getting It Right!
The rule standard began to change with the tide during this past season when Tom Kostopoulos received a six game suspension for his North-South hit that broke the jaw of Wings defenceman Brad Stuart. Recently, Aaron Rome of the Vancouver Canucks was suspended for the balance of the Stanley Cup Finals for his late N-S hit on Nathan Horton that ultimately put both players out the Stanley Cup Final Series.
During the final series, the competition committee met and wisely is recommending new language for Rule 48 by removing the verbiage "blind side." My hope is that this time they go far enough in terms of providing strong deterrents through tough language in the rule, significant/mandatory suspensions and a firm and consistent standard of enforcement employed by every referee on staff. The NHLPA membership must be active participants in solving this problem that faces the game, their careers and potentially their future health. We'll all stay posted on this pressing issue.
This leads me to the subject of officiating consistency (or lack thereof) throughout the playoffs that many of you have bemoaned. I have quite often been accused of wearing my stripes on my sleeve and 'blindly' supporting the zebras no matter what they do. For those that think that, you haven't been reading all that closely. When I don't agree with their calls I have expressed that opinion but always attempted to be fair. Unquestionably, the game has suffered through a lack of consistency.
It is easy to criticize the officials but we need to look beyond just the calls on the ice to address this problem. The Officiating Department, led by Vice President of Officiating and former referee, Terry Gregson, needs the strings cut to be allowed to do a better job coaching, teaching, and directing the on-ice officials to succeed. The league has lost their best on-ice mentors through attrition/retirement so another form of active coaching is required. Gregson inherited a department that was in need of an overhaul. DVD's can't just be handed to the referees after each game and asked to analyze their own performance. Guidance is always required. Teams have coaches put together individual player DVD's, sit with that player and clearly analyze his performance. No differently than players, officials need this form of individual and specialized coaching.
Ever since Hockey Operations took control of the Officiating Department the mentoring and coaching of officials began to deteriorate. Officials need to feel empowered to make decisions without being second-guessed by the "war-room" in Toronto. Officials need to be able to develop a feel for the game, and to rely on their judgment rather than falling back on the safety net of saying, "Let's go upstairs." They need to know instinctively when measures are needed in a game and a series without an edict coming down in a press release from above. When game misconducts are assessed and the league rescinds them, or plays are deemed "a good hockey play" or "in a hitting zone" by the keepers of the game, it causes serious confusion amongst the rank and file. Decisions on the ice can sometimes become a silent debate with oneself as to how a call will be perceived at "mission control." In other words, as a result of feeling like the league is second-guessing him, the referee begins to do it to himself and does not react instinctively. Those who have never worn the stripes wouldn't understand that.
On several occasions, I've had to question whether these dedicated men who sit in the war room late into the night have any idea what it really takes to referee in the National Hockey League. Playing the game and refereeing it, although both are worthy of respect, quite honestly require distinctly different skill sets. Hopefully some consistency will be achieved through the re-tooling of Rule 48, supplementary discipline and future suspensions that will empower the on-ice officials to apply the rules in a more consistent fashion as well.
When the 'new NHL' returned from the lockout season, penalties were expected to be called from the first game of the season to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup. In every game, regardless of the score or time remaining the mandate was the same - that penalties would be called. Brendan Shanahan was the key orchestrator that brought everyone to the table during that crucial time in the history of the game and crafted the guidelines for a 'new NHL.' Brendan Shanahan is now in a position to greatly assist in bringing that mandate back. Here's to the "New - New NHL."
Have a great summer everyone. September will bring renewed hope and enthusiasm for all us all.
The Final Call is yours to make. (Scheduled for release in paperback Sept. 24 by Fenn/McClelland & Stewart.)