Nashville Predators  v Columbus Blue Jackets

Being a referee is a hard job on your average day. In an exhibition game, in a men’s league, in the NHL and in peewee. I spent parts of a couple summers reffing, and I remember being surprised at how much my own fatigue affected my ability to be in the right place. It’s kind of like being a penalty killer for 60 minutes – the job requires a lot of stops and starts to be in the perfect position, and while you’re doing that, you need to be keeping a clear, focused mind on the action.

And hockey doesn’t lend itself to simple decisions. Big bodies whip around an enclosed area chasing a small object that passes over lines at various heights, and sometimes things simply aren’t black and white. Even with multiple cameras and slo-mo replays, it can occasionally be hard to get calls right.

So I’m sympathetic to the plight of the referee, partially because of the above job description, but also because you add to that the contempt of both teams on the ice, the coaches, and all the fans in the building. They live in a state of perpetual mistrust.

What that situation means is that all they can do is their best, be true to themselves, and hope the game doesn’t unfold in a manner like say, Chicago/Detroit did last night. 

It is my firm belief that Steven Walkom saw Kyle Quincey giving the business to Brandon Saad, deemed the excess roughhousing worthy of a penalty, but didn’t want to put Chicago on the man advantage at a critical point in the game for fear of being The Ref Who Decided The Game’s Outcome, and used the fact that the two players were relatively intertwined as an excuse to call coincedental penalties. That call negated a Chicago goal, and Walkom instantly became the bad guy because – again, totally my opinion – he didn’t want to do exactly what he ended up doing.

But I’m not writing this as a referendum on that play. Forget that play. I’m writing this to discuss the concept of refs putting the whistle away late in games.

I’ve seen it said by many over the course of playoffs (given some dicey officiating), that refs should call plays as they see it, straight up, from puck drop to final buzzer. And of course they should. Unicorns, gumdrops, etc. In a Utopian world everyone would accept the ref’s best effort from start to finish and we’d all move on and this wouldn’t be a thing (it’s a thing).

But if you’ve ever met a hockey fan, they don’t exactly react the same to missed calls at the start of the first in the regular season as they do calls at the end of the third in a playoff game. Opinions of anyone who denies the previous sentence can immediately be discounted. Christ, Leaf fans are still bemoaning a non-call from 1993 or whatever year it was. Because of the moment. 

Refs are human, and want to be respected for the work they do. Kerry Fraser (perpetrator of the aforementioned non-call) is now saddled with people who judge his career through the lens of a moment, and that’s not fair to him as a man. Regardless, if he could go back, I bet he’d call the high stick. The huge, huge, VAST majority of refs want to do the right thing. I don’t think you can make it far in the business if you don’t.

So knowing that, you also need to know something else: if you’re going to blow a call, you’re better off with it being a non-call than a wrong call. You can miss things, but to claim something happened when it plainly didn’t just paints you as a liar. You obviously didn’t see that, you mendacious bastard, because it never happened.

And that’s the meandering road you travel to get to why refs “put the whistles away” late in periods and in playoffs.

As I’ve been pushing towards, the truth about referring a hockey game is that all you can do is the best you can. You’re pretty sure you saw that slash. That looked like a hold from where you’re parked. That looked like too many men to you. So you make the call.

You make the call because you saw something. Whether it wasn’t exactly what you thought it was or not, if you continually call what you think you see, it should even out. Each team should get some cheapies, and some well-deserved calls. With a large enough sample size, the playing field is level.

But at the end of the game – at the end of the game in the post-season, say – the human factor is all too present. You don’t want to be the guy who claimed something was there when it wasn’t.

A good referee is supposed to go as unnoticed as they possibly can. You’re not the story, you facilitate it. You don’t want to decide the outcome of the game and be The Guy Who Decided The Game in a pivotal moment because you thought maybe you saw something. You want to be sure.

And that’s why the whistles go away when they do. As players, you accept that refs don’t want the responsibility of deciding the game, that the onus is on you to get it done, and that it might get a little bit prison rules-y here for a little bit, but that’s okay. You’ve battled for 60 minutes and you expect to be given the opportunity to settle this like warriors, head-to-head.

Refs don’t “put the whistles away” because it’s part of some unspoken referee code. They put the whistles away because they don’t want to decide the game, and earn the label and lack of respect that comes with a blown late call. Refs “put the whistle away” because they’re trying to do the right thing by everyone.