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It has been said many times over the years that NHL games are often officiated differently at the beginning of the season than they are during the stretch drive and playoffs. There is a reason why this happens.
Just like every team and player in the league, officials have a training camp before the season.
In a hockey team’s training camp, there are main facets that are heavily emphasized and themes that get repeated frequently; for instance, breakout and forechecking systems and the importance of players keeping their feet moving and supporting the puck.
With officials, there are also themes that get stressed heading into the season. There are directives from the league on certain areas of rulebook enforcement that should be emphasized; such as calling interference penalties to crack down on defensive teams hitting or holding up opposing forecheckers after the puck is dumped into the corner.
At its root, hockey is a game of adjustments and of trying to establish momentum and repeatable results. However, it’s never going to be wrinkle-free. These are human beings out there, not robots. Again, this goes for both the playing and officiating sides of the game.
During the season, all hockey teams have stretches where the coaches need to reemphasize areas that are still trouble spots or had seemingly been corrected but have begun to slip. Perhaps the team has let its defensive discipline slip and they’ve been giving up a lot more goals of late. Maybe the forechecking — and goals scored — have taken a downturn. Corrections and adjustments are needed.
On the officiating side, what tends to happen is that the enforcement bar gets set high early in the season. Sometimes it even gets set a little too high on marginal infractions. Over the course of the season, there are corrections made. However, it is also possible for things to start getting a little too lax again in areas that were called tightly earlier in the season.
This is where the “October Rule Book vs. April Rule Book” phenomenon happens in the NHL. Of course, the book itself is still the same but the enforcement directives and supervision tends to change course. Sometimes it’s a needed adjustment. Other times, it’s simply a reaction to controversy.
When I was an active official, I developed a style of overseeing games. I always believed — and still do — that flow is paramount. I prided myself on calling games the same way all season, regardless of the venue or the date on the calendar. I had much more fear of fudging a call than of being criticized for getting one wrong.
Throughout the season, I would self-critique my work. I also never minded constructive criticism from peers or supervisors; in fact I welcomed it. Following the Bruce Lee philosophy of absorbing what was useful and discarding what was not, I would tweak things accordingly.
What I did NOT respond to was constant negative feedback that stemmed either a) from people who wanted to drive me out of the game and/or b) had no constructive suggestions to offer, poor communication skills and no clear-cut vision of what an effective official should be.
I have had some great coaches and teachers and I have also seen my share of lousy ones. A good coach or teacher puts his charges in position to succeed, and communicates both expectations and instructions clearly.
When I work with officials over in Russia, I instruct visually and with easy to grasp terms. For example, everyone knows what a banana is. So when I discuss a method of swinging around from the left post to right post to get a new perspective on finding the puck, I draw a banana and verbally say the word to make the concept easy for everyone to understand even if they don’t speak English.
Here’s an example of bad communication: Former NHL and major junior hockey coach Vic Stasiuk used to be notorious for giving his players incompatible instructions. He’d order his skaters to “check but don’t check” and his goaltender to “challenge them but don’t challenge”. The players would look at each other in confusion, shrug and wonder what the hell their coach actually wanted them to do. Plenty of officials could also relate from the type of feedback they get.
In the NHL, it has been that same way with the management of officiating in the 25 years since John McCauley’s death. One of the ways that the league unwittingly feeds into inconsistent officiating is through conflicting directives and critiques. For example, officials are told to be vigilant about infractions along the walls (“Keep an eye on those pins on the boards”) but NOT directed specifically about what their bosses want and do not want them to call.
Under the rules, defensive players are NOT allowed to pin and hold opposing players along the boards. Now, if officials are properly trained and instructed, they know how to tell the difference between what should and should not be a penalty.
A few keys to determining this call is a stick in front of the player and a hand on the back and the offensive player’s legs continuing to move trying to get free. Meanwhile, a penalty CAN NOT be called if the offensive player stops moving his feet.
In the course of my work supervising officials in the ECAC, I try to offer guidance on how to apply these standards. One good way is through video teaching, which is one of the elements I incorporate in an email newsletter circulated among league officials.
Specific to the management of the flow of play and rule enforcement on scrums along the boards, below is a video compilation we circulated earlier this season as one of our teaching tools. Hopefully, this can help illustrate the way that I think these routine game situations should be officiated on the ice:
OK, so what are we looking at here in the video?
Segment 1 – No penalty, as the offensive player doesn’t move his feet.
Segment 2 – No penalty. The player doesn’t wrap him or hold the offensive player. Rather, he guides him to the wall as a defensemen.
Segment 3 – There is a penalty on the near side as the offensive player keeps working and isn’t allowed to move.
Segments 4 & 5 – Again, no penalty as the player doesn’t move his feet.
Rather than leaning on hands-on teaching and coaching, the NHL creates too many “automatic” calls that take away officials’ discretion to judge the play and, meanwhile, also issues sliding scale directives on enforcement.
The latest example is the monstrosity of a new tripping rule calling for an automatic penalty even if a defender incidentally trips an attacking player after making contact first with the puck on a desperation sweep check. I can almost guarantee you that this rule will be tightly called early in the season when there is emphasis being placed on it from the NHL on enforcement and then will be scaled back when there are some negative outcomes and people gripe about chintzy tripping calls.
************ Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.
Today, Stewart is an officiating and league discipline consultant for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC).
The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials, while also maintaining a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.
Stewart is currently working with a co-author on an autobiography.This post originally appeared on www.hockeybuzz.com and we thank them for permission to rebroadcast it here.