1) The Stanley Cup Finals are over, and congratulations go out to the Tampa Bay Lightning for winning the Cup and to the Dallas Stars for make one hell of fun to come within two victories of the game's ultimate prize. Kudos as well to the families of the players, coaches and officials who made huge sacrifices for their spouses and dads to live out their dreams while away from home in the Bubble for two months.
2) I thought the Finals were pretty good this year. The pace was good, and there was a lot of physical play. I could not help but marvel at Victor Hedman. He's the textbook definition of a two-way defenseman. He made a huge impact on both sides of the puck; it wasn't just about stats. If anyone else had gotten the Conn Smythe Trophy, it would not have gone to the most impactful overall player in these playoffs.
3) In my last blog, I discussed a penalty call against Dallas' Jamie Oleksiak that I believe should NOT have been made even though it was correct by the strictest of Rule Book interpretations (the problem being that it neither practical nor desirable to officiate that way, because significant inconsistency is inevitable and no one would want to see several dozen power plays per game even if it were). One of these days, I ought to do a video blog of several minutes of game action where I use the strictest and most literal-minded interpretation of the Rule Book to show just how many "technical" penalties there are in the course of an average game. The very purpose of the Rule Book is to keep things fair and as safe as possible for the participants.
Whenever I meet one of those "just call it exactly how it's written in the Rule Book" folks, I smile and nod politely but I'm thinking, "This is someone who has never officiated and has never studied the Rule Book."
4) I also want to touch upon the OT penalty call against Jamie Benn in Game 4. I had no problem with it from the standpoint of a power play being awarded in OT -- we should WANT our referees to have the courage to make a call. I'm also not going to debate over the judgment call involved: Was it just a puck battle where one guy went down? Would Dallas have unfairly been advantaged by virtue of a non-call? That's up to the referees to judge and for fans to debate.
What I do want to discuss here is the unwritten delegation of responsibilities
(italics added for emphasis, because I will expand on this later) for the two referees on the ice. It is preferable for the referee who is closer to the play (the R1) and presumably has the better look at it to make the call if there's a penalty. There are exceptions.
When people ask me how I feel about the two-ref system, I tell them that I am fine with it. In fact, it is a necessity as long as the two-line pass is legal. In the days when teams could not legally make passes across two lines, a ref trailing the play could "catch up" at the red line. Nowadays, that's impossible to do. Even so, the two-ref system requires both referees and all four officials on the ice to be on the same page to function properly together.
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 system, so they need to be able to get in synch on the ice via other methods to make sure they get the correct call.
When the NHL adopted the two-referee system -- actually re-adopted because, prior to World War II, they used a two-referee and one-linesman system -- it created some new challenges in delineating duties and getting calls right. Most non-officials automatically think I'm referring to penalties when I say that, but there are also challenges involving goal/ no goal rulings.
For example, what is the correct call when this situation arises? A referee behind the net (the "R1" in officiating parlance) signals for a good goal a fraction of a second after the trailing referee (the "R2") blows play dead for an attacking team penalty he spotted higher in the zone while the R1 is focused on the puck?
Answer: Since the penalty preceded the puck going over the goal line, it's no goal and a penalty on the attacking team.
Another, more common scenario involves this oft-asked question: "How can the official behind the play make a call that should belong to the referee closest to the play?"
I will explain how and why it happens. It is not automatically one referee's fault nor does it mean the two-referee system is inherently flawed. Sometimes, there is a mistake involved but sometimes it means the system is actually functioning as it should.
When the current two-referee and two linesmen system was introduced in the modern era, 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.
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, to this very day.
What I quickly 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 situation-based. Unless the NHL says 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 Paul Devorski. 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.
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 bookending pair of calls with Devo. 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. Devo was the R1 but he had to duck in self-protection as a puck got deflected near his head. Spotting an opportunity, Barnaby cross-checked Odelein. I saw it and made the call.
Afterwards, my partner referee and I argued about the call. Devorski 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 very 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. 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, however, 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 referee (I won't mention his name but he had a very lengthy NHL tenure). 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. If that happens, you call it. 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.
Looking back, it was an honest mistake born of a young ref being overzealous. Even so, it shouldn't happen. As officials we are constantly striving not only for self-improvement but for betterment of teamwork and communication. It's a perpetual progress. The key is to learn from experience, and to minimize the mistakes.
This job should never be about ego. It's about teamwork and giving your team the best chance for success in getting calls right. Positioning sells calls, so if one ref is in better position and sees the play right in front of him, it's his call. The other ref, however, can and should be of assistance if there's something he sees that the other cannot see.
Sometimes there's something blatant going on off-puck that the referee behind the play (the R2) might see that the R1 cannot. Possibly there's a situation where the R1's line of vision was momentarily screened or diverted.
t tost of the time, though, both as an active referee and an officiating supervisor, if a trailing referee made a call on a play that the R1 saw and was closer to, I'd expect to hear a good explanation of why that call HAD to be made from the R2 vantage point.
Specific to the call on Benn, I thought the penalty/no penalty judgment call would have been better left to the near-side referee than the trailer.
5) You know that song, "The Hips Don't Lie"? Mine have bothered me for years. This week, I finally went in for hip replacement surgery. Time marches on: it's as simple and inevitable as that. To those that have served as officials in the past, I sincerely thank you for your service. However, just like an older veteran player who may no longer be able to sustain the pacing of the game, an official's physical ability deteriorates over time.
Here is a note to aging officials who find themselves in the situation I did when I realized my active career was winding down: It's not fun and it's not pleasant but take stock after each season of what you are and are not physically capable of doing on the ice as you plan your off-season preparations for the next year.
As an assignor and officiating director, one of the most gut-wrenching conversations I had to initiate was when I had no choice but to inform senior officials who either were physically breaking down or were no longer able to keep up with the ever higher conditioning demands of our sport at advanced levels that I had no games for them to work anymore. Everyone wants to retire on his or her own terms, not "being retired" by your boss. The good of the game and safety has to come first in the decision process but, on a human level, it's brutal.
If an assignor has told you "Sorry we don't have assignments for you anymore," please don't take it personally or as a sign that your past work is not appreciated. As I said, time waits for no man. I've dealt with it and so can you.
Ultimately, officiating directors have to make decisions based on the needs of the game using my experience in judging an official's ability to do the job. The physical, mental and decision-making demands are very, very high in this profession. That's why not many folks can do it and why even veterans can't take these abilities for granted.
However, just like when an on-ice officia has to make tough calls on the ice and deal with the fallout, officiating directors are paid to make decisions and judge their crews. It's not personal. It's hockey.
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