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On Moxie, Judgment and the Black Widow's Web

September 9, 2020, 4:22 AM ET [2 Comments]
Paul Stewart
Blogger •Former NHL Referee • RSSArchiveCONTACT
A lot of people say, "If that was a penalty in the first period, why isn't that a penalty in the third period?"

Harry Sinden expressed the converse of that thought: "If that doesn't merit a penalty call in the third period, why should it merit a call in the first?"

There is, of course, a distinction between the two that has to be made. I've said this before and will say it again: Conditioning, positioning, hockey sense and the courage to make the call are the four most vital traits that a good official must possess. In today's game, at least at the upper levels, conditioning is a prerequisite for even being considered for the job. There is no doubt whatsoever that today's officials are some of the best conditioned athletes you'll find anywhere. So are the players, of course, and the pace of play is very demanding.

Positioning is a coaching issue. Even at the NHL level, I feel that many officials are not properly coached on positioning. This plays directly into missed penalties and, even worse, hasty/late whistles that affect goals going up on the scoreboard or not counting when they should. More than any other rule, confusion and controversy tends to surrround goaltender interference calls.

I call goalie interference "the black widow's web" of hockey rules; the messiest rule in the book and the easiest in which to get hopelessly entangled.

People complain, with justification, that the enforcement of goaltender interference is inconsistent and almost arbitrary except in the most blatant of situations. That's true, but the fault lies within the rule and all its subsets and gray areas that go into making a black-and-white yes/ no (in this case, goal/ no goal) judgment call.

The ultimate purpose of reviews for goalie interference is, of course, to get the call right. In this year's NHL playoffs, I've seen reviews that took an incomplete look at the elements involved: For example, if an atttacking player is pushed into the goalie by a defender, that does NOT automatically mean that a resulting goal should count.

Other elements matter, too: Even if the defender supplied the energy that created the goalie/attacker contact, did the attacking player have a reasonable chance to avoid or minimize the contact? Dino Ciccarelli and Theo Fleury, for example, had reps for turning the slightest nudge from a defender into an excuse to launch themselves into the goalie as if they were a bowling bowl launched into the head pin by famous pro bowler Mark Roth.

Sometimes, there are plays where the attacking player was legitimately shoved into the goalie with no embellishment of the contact but then uses it is an excuse to linger and linger some more inside the blue paint. In so doing, he prevents the goaltender from having a reasonable chance at attempting a save. Such a goal should NOT count, as the rules also require that the attacking player make a concerted effort to vacate the crease as soon as realistically possible.

During these NHL playoffs, actually, there was a play where an attacker lingered in the crease for so long after he was pushed that a puck that went behind the net for a few seconds after the defender pushed him into the goalie that actually backed into the net off this player-- he was credited as the goal scorer -- while he was still standing inside the crease.

When the play was challenged and reviewed, at least according to the NHL's Situation Room review explanation, the ONLY element that was examined on the replay was whether there had been an initial push, In this case, the push was actually the one element of the play that was pretty much indisputable. It was the subsequent opportunity and attempt to vacate the crease (or lack of opportunity and attempt) that needed to reviewed and judged.

Something else that I've seen pop up in these playoffs: reluctance to make a call that needs to be made. During the Tampa vs. Columbus five-OT marathon, the Blue Jackets had a legit beef on a lost scoring chance that looked by a holding penalty on a defender. In a Philadelphia vs. Islanders overtime, the Flyers goaltender committed a blatant delay of game penalty on a puck he caught and held onto behind the net. That one needed to be called, but was not.

These are but two examples. Often, unless it's a non-discretionary call, such as the dreadful current day automatic delay of game for a non-deflected puck that goes over the glass in the defensive zone or a nearly automatic call such a stick slash that breaks the recipient's stick, there's a tendency toward over-leniency. Believe me, no one hates to see a ticky tack penalty call play directly into an overtime or go-ahead goal more than I do.

This does not mean, however, to abandon all judgment and call only the mandatory/ semi-mandatory penalties or ones that are so blatant as to be more controversial if NOT called. There have been a few times in these playoffs where I've closed my eyes and imagined how the late Frank Udvari would have reacted to some of the willful non-calls on judgment plays where there really was little doubt about the play.

As a young official, I got my share -- more than my share -- of tough-love coaching from my mentors. But it was only Udvari, and just one time in the minor leagues, that ever questioned my guts.I had seen a defenseman mug a guy by grabbing him around the neck in front of the net. I called a minor for holding. Then the D-man threw the opponent down and punched him. I didn’t make a second penalty call on the player, although I knew I should have.

In between periods, Frank came down to our room, walked into the bathroom and stalked back out. I waited expectantly. The tension was thick. Finally, he started. Frank literally backed me up against the wall and poked his finger right in my chest.

He sneered, “If you don’t have the guts to make that second penalty call on a player down here, how the hell do you think you’ll have the guts to make it up in the NHL?”

Then he turned and left. Frank was right and I learned a valuable lesson right then and there: Be the referee for 60 minutes (or more, as needed). Have guts. To hell with what anyone else thinks, because you are the one being paid to judge.

I am not advocating for coaches, whether with players or officials, to make physical contact with their charges in delivering a message. Nowadays, that would be grounds for dismissal. But the substance of the message is this: If you'd make that call with no hesitation during the regular season, and if you'd make it in the first period, then it needs to be called even in a playoff overtime. Otherwise, in your effort to let the players decide the game, you've actually done the opposite of your intention.

Courage is a trait that cannot be taught or "coached into" a player or official. It's innate. One also cannot teach hockey sense. I can't even tell you have many players and officials that I've seen over the years who are great athletes with seemingly all the tools to excel -- some even make it all the way to the NHL -- but they lack hockey sense to read plays and innately understand the situation. It's a "feel", and you either have it or you don't.

What we need to establish in all levels of hockey is for officials to have a strong feel for the game. Final two points. There are two damaging mentalities that we need to break away from, and both are very much part of the NHL game as well as other levels:

1) Refereeing by result. Interference is interference, even if the result is innocuous. Boarding is boarding, even if the player who gets hit is unhurt. So on and so forth. What we need to work through is the mentality that somehow the same act is more or less penalty-worthy based primarily upon the result. As we adapt to this, there will no doubt be griping about "ticky-tack" calls when there's a seemingly harmless result. It's going to take education and persistence to get people to re-train the way they've come to instinctively think.

2) Overreliance on replay. The replay age has directly contributed to a decline in attention to detail on proper positioning and principle of skating where one needs to skate to see what one needs to see. We want and need officials to work as if there's no replay to back them up and the "just make a call and we'll fix it upon reply" mentality. Strong positioning, skating ability, and physical conditioning (more on that next blog) are not optional.

These important changes will not come about without some adjustment period. As I said,we will need officials to be able to feel the game -- in other words, demonstrate hockey sense -- as situations arise and for everyone on all sides of the game (including coaches and players) to retrain themselves out of habits that have set in.

Fans are trained, in fact often hard-wired, to see games as home vs. road (good guys vs. bad guys) and heavily on the cause-and-effect side of things. That may never change but the game itself will benefit by these changes.


A 2018 inductee into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, 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.

Visit Paul's official websites, YaWannaGo.com and Officiating by Stewart.
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