The Situation Room: A Carlinesque Term

228

b>Follow Paul on Twitter: @paulstewart22

When I work with officials, I place my trust in them. I tell them, “I hired you for your judgment, so go out there and judge.”

That doesn’t mean I do not set the bar high or am hands-off when it comes to issuing critiques. Quite the opposite, in fact. I tend to be blunt and I do not sugar-coat my assessments.

My goal, however, is not one of control and muscle-flexing to “put them in their place.” Rather, I want to see my officials succeed.

Something else I tell the officials whom I coach and supervise: That cliche about a good referee being one you never notice is false. There are going to be tough calls in this sport and some that are going to be controversial even if you make the right ruling. Embrace the pressure and be decisive. Also realize that there WILL be calls you miss. When you screw up, admit it. Then move on and get the next call right.

When I learned how to officiate, the mantra — which I’ve always taken to heart — is skate where you need to skate to see what you need to see. Proper positioning is the key to selling the call. In today’s game, officials are trained to focus on staying out of the way even to the detriment of being in position to make certain calls.

Remember that the next time you see an NHL referee in the corner blow play dead around the net when the puck is loose but he lost sight of it for lack of the best possible view of the play. They have been coached to position themselves that way.

Some final thoughts on coaching and the framework of the contemporary game: An unfortunate fact of today’s NHL game is that the rulebook has become one more geared toward damage control than judgment and maintaining the flow of play. Just many aspects of today’s game are over-coached and stifle players’ creativity, the rulebook has been over-legislated into something that reactively inhibits the game.

Today’s NHL on-ice officials get their hands tied on a variety of calls that used to be judgment decisions. The League takes away their decision-making power in other situations (which is a big part of my problem with the “War Room” replay system). Behind closed doors, supervisors tear down officials when they do exercise some judgment. They’ve been systematically rendered nameless (no names on the sweaters) and voiceless (can’t speak to the media and publicly explain a call).

The name War Room — or Situation Room, as the NHL officially prefers — is a misnomer. With whom are they at war? With their officials? With the wording of the rulebook weighed against common sense? I think their one and only prime directive to be to assist officials when needed in getting the call right, but perhaps that’s just me.

As for “Situation Room”, that is a loaded, meaningless term. To paraphrase the late, great George Carlin, EVERYTHING is a situation, isn’t it? In practice, when the word “situation” is used in a bureaucratic context, it is often a thinly-veiled euphemism for “Oh, crap! We’ve got a possible crisis on our hands!”

“Situation Room” smacks of paranoia, damage control and manipulation by the nameless, faceless crew hundreds of miles from where the game is being played.

As Carlin astutely said, language always give you away. How about “Decision Room”? Isn’t that what the NHL is actually intending it to be?

What this all boils down to, as I see it, is that the NHL doesn’t trust its officials to judge but is unwilling or unable to give them the tools and proper coaching they need. There has never been a worthy successor to John McCauley and the art of officiating in the world’s top league has suffered for it.

That’s a shame.

Let me give you an example of what an incredible teacher McCauley was. When I was trying to break in as as NHL referee, I did not do very well on the written rulebook test. I had not learned it nearly as thoroughly as I should have, and John knew just how to deal with it.

“Let me study up on the NHL rulebook a little more,” I said. “I’ll look at where I messed up and then you can re-test me.”

“No, Paul, that’s not going to work,” John said. “Here’s what I want you to do. I want YOU to write up a rulebook test. I need the questions from you in one week.”

Talk about smart teaching!

In order for me to write up a test that would pass muster with the NHL’s director of officiating, I had to learn the rulebook inside and out and start to make it second nature. I learned exponentially more in preparing a test than I ever could have in cramming for an exam.

In the years since I’ve become a teacher and director of officals, I have adapted a variation on John’s method. When I am working with officials before the season, I do no rely on a written test because I want them to KNOW the rulebook and not to revert to the way that many of us approached school exams — studying for the test rather than truly learning the material.

Instead, I tell them that their rulebook knowledge or lack thereof will become very evident once the games start, and their reviews will reflect it. I also make clear that I welcome — indeed, I expect — people to ask me questions. To this day, I ask questions and I am constantly learning new things about this game and officiating it. It’s part of why I love coming to the rink and interacting with the people in and around the game.

John and Scotty both believed that an official learns best by doing. Before I made it back to the NHL in a refereeing capacity, I worked a jam-packed slate of games at every level — from juniors to minor pro and up the ladder — from coast-to-coast, with many of them in western Canada. It was a tough road to hoe, but that was by design and was ultimately in my best interests.

Something else that I benefited from: My supervisors and on-ice mentors were ALWAYS available to answer questions and share of their own experiences. There is no way I could have survived the loneliness and constant travel without the camaraderie and the long conversations we had. I truly learned my trade on the road.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned is that there is so much more to officiating than just knowing and enforcing the rulebook. It’s a multi-disciplinary profession that is much about art as it science.

A good referee is like a good medical doctor who takes the pulse and the temperature of the game and makes a diagnosis. The difference is that it’s an imperfect science. You also have to be like a good psychologist and understand what’s going in in the minds of the players and coaches (this is an area where I had a bit of an advantage as a former pro player, especially as a former enforcer).

Beyond that, there is an art to the profession that I could liken to being the conductor of an orchestra. You feel the game and you allow them to flow. As an official, one should hate the whistles. A moving puck is your best friend. When the puck stops is when the trouble starts.

One of my biggest complaints about the way NHL officiating has been run in the years since John’s death in June 1989 is that a culture of coaching for success became one of bullying and trying to set up what one could call failure traps.

Under the NHL officiating supervision regimes that have followed John’s death, the powers-that-be have chosen “lead” through bullying and intimidation. They remove the element of judgment as much as possible, tear down their confidence (especially young officials whom they try to break through constant negative feedback) and foster a culture where a mistake is something to be punished rather than a chance for learning and improvement.

If we are going to remove the judgment aspect of on-ice officiating, we are setting ourselves up for a future in which officials simply defer everything of consequence to the unseen crew in Toronto. In fact, we already see too much of that in the present where essentially no call at all is made on the ice, because the official figures the “Situation Room” will be the ones to decide 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 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.