Player Safety Can't Be Entirely on Officials
Last week, I had a Facebook dialogue with Enrico Ciccone in regard to the blog I wrote on the former NHL enforcer turned Quebec politician's proposal to ban hockey fights in the province all the way up through the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League level. Ultimately, I guess he and I will just have to agree to disagree here, but it's my feeling that fighting has largely ALREADY been mostly eliminated from minor and junior hockey and there were more pressing player safety matters that should have been prioritized rather than getting on the "ban fighting" soapbox. The latter is always a big attention grabber in the media.
In general, I think we need to look deeper beyond "the fighting question" and consider how difficult it is get players to truly buy into the need to make our game as safe as possible. One area that I don't think gets looked at enough is the accountability -- or lack thereof -- of teams' coaches in these situations when it comes to head shots and other pressing player safety matters.
So many coaches --- and general managers, for that matter -- send out mixed messages. On the one hand, they all cry out for the leagues and on-ice officials to do things to make the game safer for players. They are quick to talk about players showing disrespect for the game and for fellow players when one of their own guys gets injured or narrowly escapes serious injury.
Ah, but remember what I have said in previous blogs about the "30-Team Rulebook", wherein the rules seem to apply to everyone EXCEPT the coach's own team? Far too often, the same coaches who are the most vocal in criticizing other teams' players do little or nothing to pre-empt their own players from engaging in dangerous and reckless hits.
All of my life in hockey, I've heard coaches holler "Finish your check!" at their players. They drum it home. Now, I appreciate a good, clean body check as much as anyone. I don't want to see clean hits taken out of the game.
Far too often, however, what "finish your check" really means is "Go out of your way to drill that guy any way you can." They don't emphasize showing concern for another player's safety. They don't emphasize respect. They hardly even sufficiently stress the common sense notion of not going for a hit at the expense of taking yourself out of position.
What usually happens when a player on the coach's team delivers a reckless hit and gets suspended? The coach says something along the lines of "he's a good kid," "he was just trying to make a hockey play," "the League is overreacting based on the result," etc.
There is absolutely a trickle-down effect from the NHL to the other leagues in this regard. Players and coaches alike take their cue from what they see the pros do at the top level. As a hockey lifer and the father of two sons who've inherited my love for the game, it distresses and worries me.
Quick tangent: The youth leagues may put stop signs on the back of kids' sweaters but I still see a lot of hitting from behind and hear a lot of "finish your check" demands. Similarly we may give the kids cages and mouth guards and the goalie's cut-resistant underarmor, and yet how many coaches more sure their own players follow rules that have been created for their own safety?
Coaches are with their players every single day. The officials deal with them a few hours a week. As such, I believe that many coaches from the NHL are doing the game a severe disservice with the mixed messages they send about player safety and showing the same respect to an opponent that you want in return.
Here's a thought for dealing with teams whose players chronically end up on the suspension blotter: What if coaches themselves actually had more skin in the game? What if the coaches themselves started to face suspensions after, say, three incidents involving players on their team in a single season?
Having the coaches take direct responsibility might be the best way to resolve chronic problems. They do it with leaving the bench and we never (or at least rarely) have that problem any more.
A final thought: Coaches love to holler about accountability for the officials. The officials should be accountable, and all internal disciplinary steps taken against one should be a matter of public record. Yeah, but how many coaches willingly divulge when they've fined a player or decided to make an example of his poor play by scratching him?
Listen, I like and respect most NHL coaches. It's a tough job with a lot of pressure to win. Everyone wants to create any little advantage possible for his own team. I also understand that things happen and get said in the heat of battle. I've been there myself.
At the end of the day, however, coaches have to recognize by simultaneously promoting a safer and more respectful game and squawking because what they really want is a 30-team rule book in the NHL (or X-minus-one rulebook for fill-in-the-blank league), they are part of the problem rather than the solution. Hey, come 2021-22, NHL coaches will have a "31-team rule book" to gripe about when Seattle joins as the 32nd team. We're changing the numbers, but not the mentality.
Hockomock Area YMCA Auction
This week the Hockomock Area YMCA launched an online silent auction featuring memorabilia and experiences with pro athletes, such as autographed Julian Edelman jersey and a boating outing with me.
Bring a friend and spend the day with me and my friend Dave Elkins aboard Dave's Donzi boat. The boat cruises at 45 mph and can reach speeds up to 70 mph. You choose the location for the day next summer including: Boston Harbor, Newport, Narragansett or Cape Cod. Lunch and beverages are included in the experience.
For more information, click here
. All proceeds benefit Hockomock Area YMCA's life-changing Integration Initiative.
Water Under the Bridge
Reader Justin Mora submitted a question to me last week: "Was it ever hard for you to put aside an argument you had as a ref with a player to be sure you didn't prejudge him the next time you reffed one of his games? If so, who?"
Officials are human beings. But if you're going to be a pro, you have to be able to move on and recognize that friction is part of our sport. Ihad many instances in my career when players or coaches and I have gotten nose-to-nose in high volume "discussions" with the f-bombs flying back and forth. It usually is not so funny at the time when the temperatures are up in a chilly rink in the dead of winter or a sweltering building during playoff time. Later on, though, both of you usually end of laughing about it during the offseason or years later at poolside in Naples during the Coach's Convention or the next time you encounter that player at a golf course.
You must understand, disagreement is part of the game. I get that and so do my peers. I have often said, I never took anything said to me on the ice personally. From my standpoint, at least, there was no carryover, no grudge for anything that happens in the heat of battle.
Nose-to-nose confrontations are part of the game and part of the lore. The people that are usually walking away in horror are those that have never had to muck it up in the corners or go in harm's way through the slot. I'd like to think that we professionals get it and carry on.
Years ago, Andre Savard confronted me in the hallway in the AHL's rink in Fredericton. Savard threw a punch and hit me just under my chin but more in the chest.
I stood there, laughed at him and asked, "Is that the best you've got?"
My buddy, linesman Romeo LeBlanc got between us and I walked into my dressing room. I had to report it to AHL president Jack Butterfield. Andre got fined for the incident. However, I never mentioned the punch as it really didn't really qualify as a "good one." I hardly even felt it.
A few weeks later, I was walking through the Montreal Forum Zamboni Pit and who should be coming the other way? Why, it was my buddy, Andre Savard.
I stuck my hand out and asked him in my best French, "Andre, ça va?"
He looked a little surprised but then responded with "Pas Mal."
We both then chuckled and walked on our way. In hockey, it's a little bit about passion and a little bit about respect. You won't get one if you don't have the other.
This should go without saying: I am not advocating or condoning a policy of coaches or players physically confronting officials or even heatedly verbally confronting them. However, if it happens, it does not shock or especially offend me. It's part of life in the game.
In my refereeing career, I only ever handed four bench minors, involving three different coaches. One of the coaches whom I nabbed was Robbie Ftorek. I consider Ftorek of my closest friends in the world. He is a former teammate of mine with the Cincinnati Stingers in the WHA and Quebec Nordiques in the NHL and someone whom I have known for most of my life.
He had a job to do, and a game to win. I had a job to do, and a game to officiate. Robbie deserved the bench minor I gave him. We really went at it. The confrontation did not end our friendship, however. When cooler heads prevailed, we just agreed to disagree about the calls in that one game and we moved on, as I knew we would. Robbie was passionate about his job and advocating for his team. I was doing my job, about which I was and am passionate.
That's just how it goes in hockey. If you don't understand that friction is sometimes part of the game, you're not going to last very long in it.
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.