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Way back in 1947, six years before I was born, country music legend Hank Williams Sr. recorded a hit song called “Move It On Over.” More than 30 years and a host of cover versions later, George Thorogood made a rock’n’roll version of the song into a hit. A lot of younger folks thought Lonesome George’s version was an original.
Whenever someone asks me about the two-referee system, I’m reminded of that song.
First of all,contrary to popular belief, the NHL’s contemporary two-referee system is not some newfangled invention in hockey. As a matter of fact, my grandfather worked in a two-referee system in the NHL in the 1930s. They had two referees and one linesman. The current version is just an updated one with two refs and two linesmen. What’s old sometimes becomes new again.
Secondly, there’s a line in both the Williams and Thorogood versions of the song that goes something like “Remember, dog, before you whine, that side’s yours, this side’s mine.” In the context of hockey, this describes a sticking point that sometimes arises in the division of responsibilities between the two referees on the ice.
When the modern two-referee and two linesmen system was introduced, NHL management had a theory about how it “should” work based upon the location of the puck. The rink is divided into thirds, with the neutral zone being “common ground” patrolled by both referees and the “action referee” (the R1) handling plays in their end of the ice. The trailing ref (R2) becomes the action referee when play swings to the other end of the ice.
However, nothing has EVER been codified in the NHL — or by the IIHF or by European pro leagues — about the assignments for each referee. The system that was never thought out and illustrated to us in an intelligent way.
We officials were left on our own to figure it out. The communications aren’t always seamless.The fundamental problem is this: Just because the rink is divided into “yours”, “mine”, and “ours”, does it mean that one-third of a referee’s responsibility is deleted? The reality is that there is not an all-purpose yes or no answer to that question.
Whenever one of these situations arises — and regardless of whether the correct call is made — people always ask me “How can the official behind the play make a call that should belong to the referee closest to the play?”
I will explain how it happens. It is NOT the referees’ fault nor does it mean the two-referee system is inherently flawed. Rather, it stems from poor coaching and a lack of clear directives by the NHL.
When the NHL implemented the two-man system late in my career, what I discovered is that there are times where it makes sense for the R2 to make a call and times where it doesn’t. It is very much situation-based.
Unless the NHL directly orders that the R2 must stop being an official one-third of the time and become a spectator when the puck crosses the far-side blueline, there are going to be times where the R2 steps up to make a call. Hopefully the right decision gets made.
I was involved in several of these situations myself, both from the R1 and R2 side.
One time during the playoffs, I was partnered with a still-active NHL referee. On the play in question, he was stationed on the side of the net opposite the player benches as the puck got shot in. I was in the neutral zone on the other side. I spotted a blatant boarding call that my partner referee was unable to see because he had been focused on the puck. I made the call.
You would not believe — or maybe you would — the amount of grief I caught for “overstepping my bounds”. Don Cherry used it as a chance to get on a soapbox about how the two-referee system is a detriment to the game. I also got a call from my boss in Toronto, chewing me out and sending me home for the rest of the playoffs.
That decision was based pretty much solely on HNIC making an issue out of the play and the fact that the Director of Officiating disliked my personality and had been looking for an excuse to remove me from the playoffs.
The galling part to me was that I made the correct call. No one even disputed that part of it, and that’s what really should matter. Oddly enough, a few weeks earlier, I had been involved in pair of situations with the same partner referee. In one situation, he was the “action ref” and I was the R2 making the call. Next game we worked together, the roles were reversed.
In the first game — a match between New Jersey and Pittsburgh — Lyle Odelein and Matthew Barnaby ran their mouths at each other the entire game but nothing further developed. That is, not until late in the game.
My partner referee was the R1 but he had to duck in self-protection as a puck got deflected near his head. Spotting an opportunity to get in his licks with the action ref diverted, Barnaby cross-checked Odelein. I saw it and made the call.
Afterwards, my partner referee and I argued vehemently about the call. He refused to shake my hand after the game, and we exchanged some choice words. He was livid at me for making a call on “his” side and I stressed that the correct call was made and I made the call because he hadn’t been able to see it.
“I’m not saying that it wasn’t a penalty, Paul,” he finally said. “I’m saying that it goes against our philosophy.”
As luck would have it, we worked a game together the next night in Philadelphia. This time, I was the R1 on the play in question. I got whacked in the head with a puck, getting knocked to one knee. As I was down, my partner spotted a high stick.
He made the call, and then grinned at me as if to say turnabout was fair play. I saw the irony, too, and grinned back at him. After the game, I gladly shook his hand. He had made the right call when I was unable to see or make it.
There are, of course, some times where an R2 really should NOT be making the call and ends up making the wrong ruling on a play that was directly in front of the R1.
For example that happened one time when I was partnered with a different still-active NHL referee. He was 130 feet behind a play that was right in front of me and which I saw perfectly.
Even so, I had no choice but to go along with it. One of the cardinal rules of hockey — and this goes for both players and officials — is that you never throw a teammate under the bus by showing him up. It does NOT mean being dishonest about the play, but it does mean there is a time and place to discuss it.
The penalized team’s bench squawked and the penalized player tried to plead his case. I actually couldn’t blame them. It shouldn’t have been a penalty. Nevertheless, I had to back up my partner, and we weren’t about to change the call.
“Get in the box!” I ordered.
I then told complaining head coach John Tortorella that I would speak to him after the period. I also privately spoke to the other referee.
“Look in my eyes for a second. Did I lose a contact lens?” I asked him. “Did it roll up in my eye? Are my eyes bloodshot? Is my balance off?”
Not catching my drift, my partner referee said, “No, why?”
“Because that play was right in front me,” I said. “I saw it all the way, so I want to know why you, from all the way over there, think you saw something I didn’t.”
“Don’t be that way, Stewy,” he protested. “I saw a hook, and I called it.”
“Yeah, well, even if there was a hook, I don’t want it called from where you were. It’s one thing if it happens out of my line of sight. It’s something totally different if it’s on my side and I see the play right in front of me but you make the call anyway. That can’t happen,” I said.
As with everything else in hockey and life, communication is paramount. In Europe, the officials wear wireless headsets to communicate. The NHL does not have this, so they need to be able to get in synch on the ice via other methods.
Until such a time that communications become pretty close to seamless and there is true understanding of how the give-and-take works, I’ll keep cuing up Hank Jr. and Lonesome George. Move it on over, indeed.
************ 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 ECAC.
The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials. Stewart also maintains 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.