The Uniformity Blog

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On my Facebook page, someone recently shared a link to a cool photo essay blog on the evolution of referee and linesmen’s sweaters over the years.

The evolution of hockey rules — including uniforms — is a fascinating subject to me as a third-generation referee. Hockey traditionalists didn’t like the long Cooperall pants the Flyers and Hartford Whalers adopted in the early 1980s so they were banned in the NHL after a couple years, and lower leagues also ditched them.

The current hockey pants and socks uniform went back to the norm and has stayed that way ever since. That’s as it should be. The look of players is traditional, and reflects a respect for the game and its heritage.

Conversely, the extreme sweater tuck, the belts and oversized laces hanging down, the hot pink sticks, the odd colored turtlenecks (for instance, here in the KHL, Atlant’s Evgeny Artyukhin wears red despite the fact that his team’s colors are like the Sabres) are just manifestations of the freedom of expression that every individual has a right to in his life. Forget the rules, just let the players do whatever they want. Ah, but who told me once that there was no “I” in team?

During the course of my on-ice officiating career, the uniforms for both officials and players changed quite a bit over the years. From an official’s standpoint, I worked through the years where officials had names on the back of our sweaters and then the NHL decided to remove them. There were also smaller cosmetic changes to the uniform at times that date them to a specific season or season.

Under what is currently Rule 31.1 of the NHL rule book, all officials must dress in black trousers and League-approved sweaters (which include specific requirements for the size and placement of the number on the back as well as a prohibition of non-approved patches). Nowadays, it is required for officials to wear helmets — something that was optional when I was officiating — and well as using a League-approved whistle.

When I was an NHL referee, I once got in trouble with the League for wearing a sweater in a game in which the number 22 on the back was nine inches instead of eight inches. However, in my case, it was NOT an attempt at self-expression. It was an honest mistake.

Throughout the season, the NHL would send me shipments of referee sweaters every few weeks. I would go through as many as three to five a game, in part because I constantly gave a lot of them away to Hockey Fights Cancer, charitable auctions and for similar purposes. With a few exceptions — such as my first NHL game, and the 1987 Canada Cup — I didn’t have enough emotional attachment to my sweaters to keep them.

One time, I got a single sweater in a mailing envelope from my source at the league. I wore it in a game, never even looking at the number on the back.

While I was wearing it, I called a misconduct on Washington Capitals defenseman Sergei Gonchar. It was a mistake on my part, because Gonchar was actually showing great athleticism in trying to kick his stick up to his own hands after it got stuck in his skate. All I saw was the stick go airborne.

In retaliation, his coach and the team subsequently filed a complaint to the NHL about the number on the back of my sweater being too big. It caught me off-guard when I was first informed that the number was an inch bigger than the standard sweater. I got reprimanded.

As far as players’ uniforms go, I worked through the years of the tear-away and oversized jerseys that were intended by the wearer to come off during a fight. In the latter years, some players started to add more and more personal flair to the way they wore their uniforms and equipment.

I understand why the NHL has rules about players’ uniforms. I also know full well why the rules get ignored. Remember the big “tuck rule” flap (pun intended) last season? Players who tuck quickly went right back to doing as they please.

Here’s why: Although it is a referee’s responsibility under the NHL Rule book to make sure all players are properly uniformed, it is really the clubs and the trainers who have the primary responsibility. If that task gets ignored, the player can be barred from playing until the problem is rectified.

Incidentally, this includes players wearing non-approved corporate logos on their uniforms or equipment. That started in the late 1980s when Edmonton’s Grant Fuhr was paid by Pepsi Cola to put their logo on his pads. That plan was thwarted after the NHL codified an official rule that requires all manufacturers to pay the League a set sum before any identifying logos can be worn on the ice by NHL players. Specifically, the NHL words the rule this way under what is currently rule 31.8: players must comply with the “approved on-ice branded exposure program” and it the responsibility of the on-ice referee(s) to enforce the rule if violated.

The NHL is vigilant about the “branded exposure” rules. The reason, understandably, is money. When I was refereeing in the NHL, we were given a laminated card with a list of companies’ logos that were allowed to be displayed on players’ uniforms. If it wasn’t listed on the card, the player couldn’t show the company’s product on the ice.

Where the League has become increasingly tolerant over the years is in the bending of certain other uniforming rules for players that fall under the broad categories of “self-expression” or “comfort/convenience.”

Nowadays on most teams, the tail wags the dog. The clubs just want to keep their multi-million dollar investments happy. Asking certain players to wear their uniforms properly is apparently just too upsetting to some of their more sensitive souls.

There is a slippery slope here. Since we rarely see stick measurements called for nowadays, how far can a player push the envelope beyond the three-quarters of an inch curve maximum til he gets nabbed on it. One-inch curve for use on power plays? Two inches? Four inches?

For much of his career, Jaromir Jagr liked to wear bright yellow skate laces even when he played for teams with no yellow in the uniform? Sure, why not. He’s a future Hall of Famer and a five-time Hart Trophy finalist.

OK, but how about if some rookie joins the Flyers or Devils and wants to wear a purple turtleneck under his sweater: Is that kosher, too? Hey, how about green gloves on a Bruins player’s hands, since that’s his lucky color?

Wait, is that Eddie Shore rolling over in his grave?

Listen, maybe I’m just getting old and crotchety, but I really do think teams themselves need to self-police the traditions and professionalism of their uniforms. It’s a lot like when I have to parent my kids. “Well, why can’t I wear my pants like that? Johnny-up-the-street’s parents let him. You’re mean! I’m gonna sit down and hold my breath until I turn blue… and I don’t care that blue doesn’t match the uniform. Keep it up, and I’m calling the ACLU on you! I have rights, too!”

Nowadays, uniformity is shucked for personal convenience and personal taste…funny, for a league that has consciously mirrored the NFL and the NBA on many other issues, this isn’t one yet uniformity in the NFL is strictly imposed. Can you figure out why? Yup, Nike and the big sponsorship money.

As a rules enforcer, the fact is that the numbers have to be visible and 10-inches tall on the back. They aren’t when the sweaters are tucked. Again, however, that should NOT be up to the referees to enforce when there’s a lot more serious stuff to handle. When I refereed, I might make a comment to a player about his uniform, but it was really up to the team.

When Jeremy Roenick played for Chicago, he tucked his sweater and had a blue girdle showing, so where was the uniformity in that? Mike Ricci had his sweater tucked and his pants hiked up so high, the only way you could tell who he was, was the hair and the missing front teeth. At least Wayne Gretzky had the logo sewn on the other side and only hung one side of his sweater, because trainer Peter Millar was smart enough to do that for him.

Marty McSorley velcroed his sweater rather than tying it down and wore it oversized; a tactic to gain some advantage in a fight. Rob Ray always wore an oversized sweater with no undershirt. He deliberately tried to end up bare-chested when he fought so an opponent couldn’t grab onto anything. That’s why the tie-down rule was established, and I think it pretty effectively curbed those shenanigans among the enforcers of the League.

Anyway, so where do we go from here when NHL players don’t comply with uniform and equipment rules? It filters down to the college, junior, prep and youth hockey levels. Players think it’s cool to dangle their mouthpiece from their lips (as Rod Brind’Amour and many other NHL players have done) rather that using them for their intended purpose.

This is an issue that I specifically have tried to crack down on. One of the hats I currently wear is as the co-commissioner of ISL Hockey. I recently sent out a directive to all referees on game protocols with the following item capped and underlined to show its importance to me for safety reasons:

MOUTHPIECES MUST BE WORN PROPERLY: IF A PLAYER ATTEMPTS TO PLAY WITHOUT A MOUTHPIECE OR HAS THE MOUTHPIECE IMPROPERLY POSITIONED (dangling from their mouth) That player will be sent back to the bench immediately. A second attempt of that player to play and not correctly wearing his mouthpiece will result in the penalties as described in the NCAA book.

Getting back to the short-lived jersey tuck “crackdown” of last season — of which Alexander Ovechkin was the poster child my response to Ovechkin would be: “This isn’t Dynamo, buddy! It’s the NHL. You can run the roost over there but here, you are one of 20. Besides, as a team leader, should you be setting an example of getting everyone on the same page in every possible way? Well, this is one the easy ways.”

Oh, and Alex, your countryman Pavel Datsyuk is a pretty fair hockey player. Some might even say he’s the best all-around player in the world. Funny how he just goes along and gets along and lets his play be his personal statement. There’s no BS with that guy. Give me a team where that’s the type of player who sets the example, because THAT is a leader.

I haven’t forgotten about the goalies, either. There’s a fashion for some of them to wear no socks with just bare skin. Meanwhile, in the AHL, Alex Stalock in Worcester got badly cut only wearing thin underarmor. Thee goalies are down and do the splits, players fall over them. Logic dictates there’s a significant risk, they will eventually get cut but the socks might offer some added protection.

Nope, the coaches beg me to let their players wear something cooler. Forget their safety, please just give in and go along. Well, not if I’m in charge and not where an issue of safety is concerned.

The way I see it, if they aren’t uniformed as in the book, they don’t play. The rules are my shield and my guide. As we know, many players, coaches, front office people, announcers and print media don’t know the rules anyway.

********* 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. 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.

In addition to his blogs for HockeyBuzz every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, Stewart writes a column every Wednesday for the Huffington Post.