Managing Communications — and Disagreements — With Fellow Officals

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In conjunction with strong positioning, consistent hustle and thorough knowledge of the rulebook, the success of any on-ice officiating team hinges on strong communication. I don’t care what league it is or what language is spoken (hockey is a universal language, anyway).

Having been in the locker room and on the ice as both a pro player and a referee, I can tell you that the communication dynamic and the level of reliance on one another is very similar among players and officials.

There’s a lot of homework that goes into the job before the opening faceoff is ever dropped at center ice. Officials do a lot more pregame prep than most fans — and even many players and coaches — ever realize. Apart from going over assignments, the referees and linesmen also share scouting reports and tendencies on the two teams and various players in the lineup.

Some examples of things that may be shared: Were there a lot of cheapshots the last time these teams played? Does this coach frequently try to sneak out an illegal line change? Does that defenseman give gratuitous cross-checks behind the play as his team breaks out of the zone? Should the official stationed nearest to the goal line be aware that Forward A loves to barrel into the goalie when he feels the slighest bump? Does Goalie G struggle to catch pucks cleanly with his glove, increasing the chance of a scramble around the net? Who are the agitators on both teams? Who are the notorious divers?

Of course, it’s impossible to discuss every possible game situation and it is just as bad to over-officiate a game as it is to under-officiate. The point I’m making here is that, just like the players, the officials try go in with as thorough of a game plan as possible. Depending upon the flow and events of the game, the official discuss adjustments on the ice and during intermissions and then work to enact them during play.

As with any team, officiating crews have good days and bad day. The skilled ones have a lot more of the former than the latter. There are some referees and linesmen who have instant chemistry, and others that take time to get in synch.

The goal is simple and black-and-white: Make the right call. The specific execution of that goal is not always that clear cut, but the tools for accomplishing it are what I described above.

Hall of Fame defenseman Mark Howe once said that he used to challenge himself to play a perfect game, free of mistakes. By his estimation, it only happened two or three times in his entire career where he could look back after a game and not find a few shifts where his positioning or decision-making with the puck or the communication with his defense partner could have been a bit sharper.

Officials need to be the same way. There’s always room for self-critique and self-improvement both within and between games. Maybe there weren’t any controversial calls the previous game but there were situations where you anticipated too much and were a little too quick or a little too slow with the whistle. Maybe you didn’t get the best possible look at a particular play, and one of your partners had to bail you out.

Officiating teams need to speak up to one another, and they also should not be afraid to correct one another when necessary.

During the 1995-96 season, I was working a Kings-Flyers game in Philadelphia — this game is perhaps best known for a third period fight in which Eric Lindros got rather easily handled by LA’s Marty McSorley — in which linesmen Pat Dapuzzo and Tim Nowak had to help me out on a tough call early in the third period with the score tied 2-2.

There was a scramble around the Kings net, and numerous players from both sides piled into the area around the crease. During the scrum, LA defenseman Steven Finn intentionally pushed the net off its moorings while on his knees in the crease.

I didn’t see the infraction. I whistled for a stoppage of play. My linesmen teammates did see it, however. After a conference with Pat and Tim, I called a delay of game penalty on Finn.

Both benches hollered at us, including the Philadelphia side. Coach Terry Murray had been told by one of his players that Finn had also momentarily covered the puck with his hand in the crease during the lengthy scramble before pushing the post off its support peg. Murray wanted a penalty shot for his club.

The Flyers’ John LeClair scored during the ensuing power play, giving his team a lead they would not relinquish. Before the ensuing center ice face off, I skated by Murray.

“Would you rather have that penalty shot now, Murph?” I teased.

“No, Stewy,” he replied. “We’re fine now.”

This was a case where the officials helped each other and things went smoothly on our own end of the communication, even if the two teams did not like the call for their own particular reasons. I will also let you in on this: Officials themselves sometimes have disagreements about calls. The teammates may even yell and scream at each other in the privacy of the locker room.

Here’s a personal story of something that happened between myself and longtime linesman Kevin Collins. Let me preface this by saying that Kevin is a friend and someone whom I hold in the highest of esteem and respect. He was a very, very good linesman. Like all human beings, however, he wasn’t perfect.

One time we were working a game in Boston and Kevin tossed the Bruins center out of the faceoff circle on an offensive zone draw. What he couldn’t see, because he had his back to the wingers nearest the boards was that a player on the other team was coming into the circle early. I could see it from my position.

I put up my hand and skated toward Collins. He waved me off.

“I got it, Stewy,” he said, annoyed.

“No,” I shot back. “You didn’t see it. That guy was coming into the circle.”

“This is my faceoff,” Collins said. “We gotta toss him.”

I responded, “You can’t, Kevin! It’s the wrong call.”

Staring daggers at me, Kevin reversed his decision. When the horn sounded to end the period, he was still fuming.

When we got back to the officials’ room, Kevin got in my face, dropping f-bombs at me. He believed I had shown him up and undermined him in front of the players, coaches and fans. I cursed right back at him.

As the hollering escalated between two very opinionated guys standing their ground, I challenged Kevin to settle it the old-fashioned hockey way. We got pulled apart before it became a physical altercation.

In the hours after the game, Kevin and I made up and the heated argument was forgotten about. The right call was made.

************ 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.

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