I never knew the rules. I used common sense. It’s really the only way to run a game. If officials called every penalty they saw, there would be no players on the ice and no one in the rink.
- Hall of Fame NHL Referee Bill Chadwick

Like the rest of the hockey world, I am thoroughly enjoying HBO’s 24/7. But while everyone else is keying in on Ilya Bryzgalov’s insanely hilarious ramblings, my favourite parts are the ever-so-brief moments with the referees, where we get to see a little bit of what goes on behind the scenes. It isn’t much, but I savour every minute of it. The reason is simple: I am a referee.

I am not, however, a hockey referee. I have never officiated a single game of hockey in my life. I am, however, a soccer referee and a baseball umpire. I enjoy getting behind the scenes with NHL referees because it reminds me so much of what occurrs in soccer and baseball.  The conversations are the same: when Raffi Torres tackled Mike Rupp and the referees talked about it during the intermission, the camaraderie and bemoaning a bonehead move fit right in with things I’ve said to my linesmen in soccer or base umpires in baseball.

The fact is, when I don’t particularly care about the outcome of a game, I tend to pay close attention to the referees and I am often the first to defend them. This is particularly true in soccer and baseball, where my experience officiating the sports helps me know exactly what to look for, but is also true in hockey. As long as I don’t have a horse in the race, I’m cheering for the referees.

This is mainly because I feel a lot of empathy for them: they have the toughest job in hockey in a sport where constant swearing and insults are completely expected. If I was on the receiving end of Peter Laviolette’s recent tirade in soccer, the coach would be spending the rest of the game in the parking lot. Referees in hockey, on the other hand, are expected to take it and, occasionally, respond in kind.

The differences between officiating in these three sports may help others see just how difficult a hockey referees job truly is. In my opinion, it is much more difficult to officiate hockey than it is to officiate soccer or baseball.

Baseball is a very black and white sport. The decisions an umpire has to make are binary: ball or strike, safe or out, fair or foul. There’s no leeway for interpretation. The two difficulties for an umpire: one is observation, as the umpire has to have a fine eye for picking out the difference between a ball and strike as well as pinpointing the exact moment a runner’s foot hits a base compared to when a fielder catches the ball. The other issue is knowledge: the rule book for baseball is incredibly involved, with detailed rules for as many bizarre situations as can be conceived. The umpire is meant to remember every single detail, even for situations that happen maybe once every 2000 games.

Refereeing hockey, however, is all about using discretion. There is very little in hockey that is black and white when it comes to the rules. The only minor penalty that’s not up to the discretion of the referees is the delay of game penalty for clearing the puck directly over the glass. If I know referees, I can guarantee you that they hate that rule.

There’s no safe or out in hockey: sometimes a hook isn’t worth a penalty. Sometimes a trip was just two players getting tangled up. Sometimes a player runs into a goalie accidentally. The quote from Bill Chadwick is revealing: if an NHL referee actually called a game completely by the book, like an umpire in baseball must, then there would be no one on the ice and nobody in the stands.

Soccer, on the other hand, has a delightfully short rule book. There are only 17 laws of the game, with only one of them dedicated to fouls. Knowing the rules is easy in soccer, which makes it doubly baffling when I run into players (and some refs) who don’t know them.

In any case, the key in soccer, like it is in hockey, is the flow of the game. A soccer ref is meant to be unobtrusive, calling what needs to be called to keep the game under control as well as any obvious fouls, but mostly just ensuring that the game runs smoothly. Every single foul has a certain element of discretion to it: even a hand ball must be intentional, leaving it up to the referee to judge intent. If the team that got fouled still has the ball and is in a good situation, the ref can call “Advantage” and let the play continue. The ref can even decide that both players are at fault and either let the play continue or call a drop ball, where either team might win the ball.

While allowing a referee this much leeway may sound disastrous to some of you, it’s the only way to keep a soccer game running smoothly. The best advice I have ever received is to call a tight game early on, establishing the boundaries for the players. Then, as the game progresses, you can loosen up, allowing more contact and physical play, as long as it doesn’t get out of hand.

The difference in hockey, however, is that penalties lead to powerplays. As a soccer referee, I can call a dozen penalties in the first 10 minutes without them distinctly influencing the outcome of the game. If a player is being particularly reckless, I can call him on one of his tackles, even if it might not be a blatant foul. This will give a free kick to the opposition, giving them a slight advantage, but unless it’s near the net it won’t lead directly to a goal.

You can’t do that in hockey. In episode two of 24/7, a referee told Max Talbot after a couple reckless hits, “You’re going to get a penalty.” Sure enough, after another, completely legal hit, he was given a penalty. After he got out of the box, the ref told him, “That was a bad call, but sometimes you accumulate one.”

The problem with that is a 2-minute powerplay has a near-20% chance of leading to a goal, depending on the team. If a player “accumulates” a penalty, it doesn’t just send a message that the player is crossing the line and needs to rein in his game, it’s two minutes out of the game that the player’s team is extremely unlike to score and his opposition is very likely to score. That “accumulated” penalty can have a dramatic effect on the game, on what the referee himself admitted was a “bad call.”

You can’t call a tight game early on in hockey to set the tone then loosen up as the game progresses: you’ve already influenced the game by giving out a number of powerplays early on. On the other hand, failing to call a penalty when one blatantly occurs also influences the game by not giving a team a powerplay opportunity.

Both soccer and hockey refs are tasked with enforcing the game while ensuring that the flow of the game remains unimpeded. We have all seen hockey games that lacked flow because of too many penalties: they’re simply not entertaining. In soccer, however, calling a few extra fouls early frequently leads to better flow throughout the rest of the game as the players understand where the lines are and know not to cross them.

Referees in any sport have a difficult job, but hockey referees seem to get the shortest end of the stick. They are tasked both with enforcing the letter of the law and keeping the game flowing smoothly. They get flak if they call too many penalties and often more when they call too few. They are called to keep the game safe, while simultaneously ensuring that they don’t take the physicality out of the game. Combine that with the speed of the game and the multitude of different events happening on the ice all at the same time, and you have an incredibly difficulty combination. Heck, sometimes they get punched in the face.

So give the refs a bit of love next game. Maybe give them a cheer when they skate out onto the ice. Take a moment when a referee makes a call against your team to consider that the referee might be right. Maybe switch your “Refs you suck!” chant into a “I respectfully disagree!” chant instead. The fact is that most referees are just trying to do the best job they can: they’re not biassed against your team and they simply do not care who wins or loses.

Except when it comes to the Canucks. I swear the refs have it out for them.

Comments (7)

  1. Delightful. Except for your parting “tongue in cheek” comment, I’m in total agreement with your observations.

  2. I’m also a multi-sport official: hockey and soccer. Lots of people ask me why I do it and I don’t really have an answer other than I love the challenge. Another common question is what’s the difference between hockey and soccer? There are so many it’s hard to put into a short answer, but I feel like you did a good job breaking it down.

    Great article and I completely agree. Love hearing the stuff from the refs.

  3. Except for spelling “Islanders” C-A-N-U-C-K-S, I completely agree. =D

  4. This was a fantastic article. The ref bits in this and last year’s 24/7 were some of my favorite parts of the show.

  5. One thing the article does not mention: Hockey Referees are the most exposed to the dangers of the sport. Slapper dump ins, flying sticks on face offs, guys battling in the corner, etc. The ref has to dodge them all, and oh, better get that call right, too.

    • Have you ever been hit by a fastball in the collar bone? It’s not pleasant. But yes, hockey referees are far more in the line of fire than officials in other sports.

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