Over-Familiarity Breeds Complacency and Contempt


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My condolences go out to the family and friends of Cpl. Nathan Circillo and my thoughts and prayers to all in Ottawa and throughout Canada. You are not alone in your grief. At times like these, we are all drawn closer together.

The NHL did the right thing in postponing last night’s Senators-Maple Leafs game.

Hockey is secondary.

Now for today’s blog topic du jour. The other day, a HockeyBuzz reader asked me a message board question that gets raised from time to time: Should hockey adopt an assignment system for officials similar to what baseball does with its umpires? Specifically, reader RockiesTop asked: Paul, I am curious as to how you feel officiating assignments should be handled. In some leagues (or sports), the officiating team stays together and works the same games, while other leagues consistently rotate their individual officials so the officiating crew has four different members each night.

As an official, would you have preferred to work games with the same guys each night, or did it not really matter? It seems that players develop chemistry when on the same line, and that the same might be beneficial for officials, too. I can see an argument both ways, but wonder if it matters to you?

While I understand the reason for the suggestion that pairs of referees and linesmen work as set units all season, I would not be in favor of such a system.

The argument in favor of the “four-man crews” is that it would provide the opportunity for the referees and linesmen to get in optimal synch with one another; communication-wise and in terms of positional support. While this sounds like a good idea in theory, I do not think it would work from a practical standpoint. Two reasons:

1) Having different referees and linesmen work with each other throughout the season enables officials to familiarize themselves with working with colleagues of different styles and personalities. With the way that playoff assignments are handled — including in baseball, where the regular season umpiring crews are not kept intact — it is important that the officials work with a variety of different partners during the season.

Think of it in terms of how hockey teams themselves work. Are the same line combinations and defense pairs kept intact the entire year by the coach? No. There are changes throughout the year.

Players have to learn to work with different types of linemates. For instance, Sidney Crosby has to be able to work equally well with a finesse player like Pascal Dupuis on his line or a big power forward like Chris Kunitz. He’s also going to see different players rotated on and off his line over the course of the season.

It’s a bit like that with officials, too. There are different skating styles, different views on rules interpretation, more laid back and more intense personalities. As a referee or linesman, you have to be able to adapt to whomever you work with in a given game. It is easier to do so when you work with a variety of partners.

2) My experience is that there’s a “familiarity breeds contempt” effect when officials and teams see each other too frequently during a given season. Hockey is a very emotional game, and officials are only human. Think of how division rival teams that play each other regularly are more likely to have carryover emotions that bubble to the surface more than interconference teams that play each other much less often.

As far as the two-man referee system goes, I never had a problem with it when I was refereeing. There were adjustments involved, and definitely takes teamwork and strong communication to make it work properly. As I see it, though, that’s just part of the game. Believe me, there are times where you appreciate having backup.

While officials are on the ice, it is critical that members of the team support one another. The number one objective is to make the right call. But it is also extremely important to back up one another when things get heated on the ice.

Are there times where officiating teams get peeved at each other? Absolutely. But those discussions have to be kept out of sight and earshot of the teams and fans.

By learning to adjust to a variety of different partner officials, one becomes a more well-rounded referee or linesman. If the same people worked together all the time, there would be a natural human tendency never to step outside of one’s comfort zone. People become too complacent. That doesn’t work for successful hockey teams or successful officiating teams.

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