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.

Comments (31)

  1. In my opinion, I think Walkom saw Saad hit Zetterberg, who lost his balance and the puck. I think he thought it was a trip (I don’t think it was, just unlucky for Henry that he lost his balance). But because that ‘trip’ lead to Hjallmarsson having a clean path to the goal, Walkom didn’t want to call the penalty on Saad to give the Wings a PP, but also didn’t want that ‘missed’ call give the Hawks a scoring chance. So he called the minors on Quincey and Saad — which in my opinion neither of them did anything to merit a penalty — Saad definitely did not, Quincey might have been engaged too long, but given the standards of that game, was not nearly enough for a penalty.

    All said, refs need to just call what they see, no matter the game or period. If Walkom thinks he sees Saad trip Zetterberg, call that penalty.

  2. Walkom should have just put the whistle away there too – the scrum between Saad and Quincey was no where near the play and had no impact on the odd man rush at hand. Luckily for the Blackhawks it didn’t cost them the game.

    • “Walkom should have just put the whistle away there too – the scrum between Saad and Quincey was no where near the play and had no impact on the odd man rush at hand. ”

      That’s a lame statement. A penalty is a penalty, regardless of where it happens on the ice. If Walkom felt it was a penalty, then he has to make that call.

      Now do I think that play was a penalty? Not at all. But penalties should not be dictated on whether there’s a scoring chance or not.

      I say good on Walkom for sacking up and making the call no matter what time is left in the game or taking a scoring chance away.

      On that note, bad on him for thinking that was a penalty.

      • If he had “sacked up” that would be one thing, but Walkom saw the scrum and didn’t blow the whistle until AFTER the goal. If he’s got offsetting penalties, then he should have his hand up right away and blow that play dead at once. Why did he wait? He’d still be yelled at for it, but it’s a big difference taking away a big scoring chance late in the game and taking an actual goal off the board.

        Walkom was indecisive and it very nearly swung a Game Seven.

  3. And on to your overall point, if the Ref’s “put the whistles away because they don’t want to decide the game”, they are indirectly deciding the game when those prison rules nullify skill plays that do or have the potential to lead to a goal.

    I think the goal of the Ref should be 100% consistent through out the game, from game to game. You can be more loose or more strict to your interpretation of the rules, like umpires and their strike zones, but be consistent. That is the best way to not decide a game, give the players the parameters, let them play within them. If you are consistent, no one can complain. Players should be smart enough to play within those parameters, and if hey don’t then that is their fault if they’re sitting in a box when the winning goal is scored in Game 7.

  4. “How could the referee call that penalty at that point in the game?”

    That, or some paraphrasing of that, is the standard question when a controversial penalty is called late in a close or tied playoff game.

    The implication is that the rulebook is to be ignored, that players are absolved of any and all responsibility to play within the rules, and that if they get called for a penalty in this timeframe, they are the aggrieved party, not the player they committed the infraction on?

    But let’s examine this from a different position. What if, instead of the question at the top, we asked a different question.

    “How could THE PLAYER commit that penalty at that point in the game?”

    The first question assumes that the players have no control over what happens, that the referees are the only ones that have to answer for their actions. For the referee to have been accused of having wronged a player by giving them a penalty, somebody has to have done something to warrant, even if only in the referee’s mind, the penalty.

    So why does that player not get scorn and vitriol?

    “Let the players play” represents some sort of utopian ideal where everybody plays within the rules at all times. Newsflash; they don’t. The referees “let the players play” right up until the point that somebody does something against the rules. That’s kind of their sole purpose of existence.

    We need to promote consistency by applying the same scrutiny we would for bone-headed penalties at any time in a game. Put the onus back on the players to play within the rules as written at all times, and make them accountable for putting their teammates in unfavourable situations.

    • Well said, generally.

      • Yep. There are either rules or there aren’t, and “putting the whistles away” in order to “let the players decide the game on the ice” has just as much effect on the outcome of the game as enforcing the rules does.

  5. I refereed minor hockey for 10 years and the biggest thigns stressed was consistency and confidence. Make the same call in the 3rd period as you would in the 1st and when you make a call be sure about it. Thats what makes this play so disappointing because to me I think Justin is right, Walkom didn’t want to give one team a power play, but what Quincey did was probably a borderline roughing call. He hit Saad into the boards and then continued to push and engage to the point where he took the player out of the play. I can see that being called but again, late in the game thats picky, but rather than making the call he bailed out on the play and called both players. What makes it even worse is if he did have the guts to call the penalty on just Quincey like I suspect he wanted then he wouldn’t have had a problem, as Chicago would have scored while the penalty was on delay and they would have scored before an extra attacker could have come on to influence the play.

    As for the pressure, I can remember making a call late in a game, semi-finals of a big tournament and one team made up of house league all stars was hanging in with a really good rep team. Tied late in the 3rd (2-3 minutes left) when the puck went to a rep player in the slot, the defender from behind hooked the player and took away a scoring chance. I had to make the call and the rep team scored on the ensuing power play. I felt crappy about it and for years the coach of the all star team was upset with me about it.

  6. Good article DUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUDE

    *sorry about the dude part. Comment system said “Good article” was too short and I had nothing else really to say

  7. Why have rules then? Why don’t they put their whistles away late in regular season games? Maybe cops shouldn’t give out fines around last call?
    Or maybe they should call the game by the fucking book the way they were trained. Mistakes happen. People take penalties at stupid times (see Abdelkader, Justin- game six against Chicago).
    GARY BETTMAN!

  8. Putting whistles away effects the game negatively towards skill? Just out of curiosity, I looked at the players scoring non-PP OT winners.
    Most recently, well reknown thug, Brent Seabrook.
    Then goon, Chris Krieder.
    Next is pugilistic SOB Colin Greening.
    Followed by Marchand, Bergeron, Orpik, Zetterberg, Ribiero, Bonino, Voynov, Krejci, Turris, Brunner, Zucker and Torres.
    2 or arguably 3 of those 15 would thrive in prison rules, but the skill guys srill shine though.
    Ask a player if he wants a war or a powerplay contest.

    • It’s not that goon-ish players suddenly get superpowers when the refs put the whistles away. Rather, TEAMS that play closer to the edge will have the advantage. The last game I watched was Game 7 of Leafs-Bruins. The refs called absolutely nothing in the third, and Boston really took advantage of that, from elbowing JVR in the nose to throwing water bottles on the ice. The Leafs couldn’t or didn’t play rougher, and they ultimately played the price.

      This shouldn’t be a strange or unexpected conclusion. If the refs are less likely to call penalties, and teams start defending against scoring chances more roughly/less legally than normal, skill teams should suffer. Hard to score with a defenceman draped around you.

  9. I have to disagree with your reasoning Justin. I feel like in no other sport are there more inconsistent refs than in Hockey. The fact there are some games where the refs put the whistles away and others like game six of the wings hawks series where it seemed like everything was called ,including what would be a very questionable and ultimately game winning penalty shot, is ridiculous. In my opinion the NHL encourages the refs to bring series to game seven’s as much as possible. No other sport has more inconsistent refereeing than hockey, apart from the replacement referee fiasco in the NFL, and as a fan of the four major sports Hockey is now on the bottom of my list to watch because of it.

  10. Solution:

    Video reffing with rules like tennis where each coach has a few challenges per period.

    Ice Hockey is way to fast paced for someone on the ice to officiate with accuracy day in and day out.

    Basically have a couple guys in a booth with all the camera angles, press a button when they want a horn to sound that stops play.

    Have linesman for offside/onside calls, puck drops and to break up scrums etc.

    This will also minimize the amount of clutter on the ice (refs getting in way of plays).

    Sure they may still not have 100% accuracy, but that’s what the challenges are for, also yes it would slow the game down, but I believe it would add another level of professionalism to the game, watching a ref decide a game cheapens the entire NHL experience.

    • To add to the camera angles part, they would need to have a view of all of the ice at all times, obviously for things that happen away from the play.

      each video ref would just have their own sections of the ice they observe.

    • J, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone on this page is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

  11. Having grown up playing hockey from a very tender age, and taking it up again in beer league, I’m beginning to think of the refs as players on the ice, for neither team, but rather also actors in the game who have a personal stake and can influence the outcome.

    I agree that most refs are trying to do their best and get it right. They have a stake in the game, which includes calling a good game and keeping potential bad actors in line while also not being made to look foolish by divers and embellishment.

    I don’t think that most fans know that 95% of the rule book is at the discretion of the referee, because its not a black and white game.

    I also wonder how many of the black and white, call the penalties people would like a speeding ticket every time they nudged over 65, or 55, or forgot to signal a lane change. Game management is part of our everyday lives, why should hockey be any different?

  12. Great post – and it happens at every level.

    I referee inline hockey in the UK – even at under-12s, you put the whistle away late in games because you don’t want to be the guy that decides it. Sure, if it’s blatent you call it, but anything borderline you decide not to see.

    Oh, and refs get trashed in EVERY sport, no more so than in football in England. It isn’t a hockey problem.

  13. Wait… unless I’m mistaken, the Blackhawks won?!? Why are we even talking about this? Sure, Walkom may ave f***ed the dog in this one, and I’m sure he’d like that all back as much as everybody in the building wanted him to take it back…But referees have a hard enough time dealing will all the games people think they might have decided, or the occasional horrible ones the ACTUALLY DID DECIDE… I think as a society we just need to let calls like this go. Yeah, it MIGHT have been awful, it could have decided the whole history of this season. but you know what? I DIDN’T. Move on folks.

  14. Its nice to want to be loved and all, but that’s not their job. Their job is to try and ensure rules are followed. So if the NHL wants the rulebook called in these tight moments (and that’s a big IF), then it needs to stand up and say so. It needs to make clear to the public that refs putting the whistle away is refs NOT doing their job. So another thing the NHL needs to do is more publicly promote and discipline officials. This gets us into the whole NHL/NHLOA negotiations, but, generally, I would prefer a league that shows why good calls are good, and why bad calls are bad.

    Finally, its long past time we have some sort of Challenge system for play calls. If Quenville’s team thought that was the wrong call, then he should have some right to challenge. I realize this may make things a lot trickier [can you imagine the uproar in Detroit if some off-ice official in Toronto overturned the decision] but with modern technology there’s no reason not to try and work through these issues.

    • That’s exactly it. A challenge system should be implemented as soon as possible. Some provisions should be made so that coaches don’t overuse it – maybe a lost timeout or a delay of game penalty if the challenge is overturned. More plays should be reviewable and challengable.

  15. The scary thing is, that with the new delay of game call for flipping the puck over the boards leaving nothing for judgement, putting the whistles away can mean that this becomes the game-deciding play.

  16. “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.”

    I think of this as precisely another reason why referees should make the effort to be consistent as possible as opposed to changing their interpretation of the rules on the fly. Refereeing is already difficult as it is; and now they’re going to add the complicating factor of “Should I call that? What time in the game is it? How will people perceive it influencing the game? etc” Keep it simple(r) and just call the game as it’s supposed to be called. No wonder refereeing is so shoddy in the NHL compared to the other major sports. They make it way more difficult than it needs to be.

    And let’s be clear, the issue isn’t about the referees call it safe when it’s close; the issue is then willfully avoiding making a call even when it’s blatantly obvious.

    And I absolutely disagree that it’s not a cultural thing in hockey. Hockey is the only major sport I’m aware of where, not only is inconsistent refereeing not frowned upon, it’s actually lauded. The proclamations of “The refs are going to let the players decide the game so they’re letting that go” are not being put out there in NFL, MLB or NBA (actually, not sure about NBA as I don’t watch it). So, for sure, there is absolutely a culture in hockey where it’s acceptable for referees to change their interpretation of the rules depending on whether it’s early/late in the season, the playoffs/regular season, or in the 1st/3rd period/OT. It’s laughable when you think about it; but only in the NHL is it a point of pride.

  17. If it is that hard to be a referee, then abolish the referees.

    Today’s technology can readily detect collisions, proximity, speed, and direction. Embed trackers in the puck and in the gear, and just do it all electronically. If it is so hard to do the damn job, then give it to robots.

  18. I hate Kerry Fraser more than I hate the kid that stole an entire box of Skor bars I brought to school on my birthday in grade 4 to give out to friends.

    Relevance? Minor. …but it had to be said. Ask Goldsbie.

  19. While many people say that the officials should call the game ‘by the book’ I’m not really sure that’s what’s best. If they did, we would have a call made on every second play and that’s slowing the game down and making it a special teams showdown. Look what’s happening with the puck over glass penalty. It’s an automatic one, the referee has nothing to say about it… and everybody hates it. We wish the referee had some room for interpretation there but he doesn’t.

    Consistency is key. Call everything the same, no matter what the game time is, no matter who’s making the play. If you compare the hit by Cooke in G1 of PITvsBOS a couple of days ago with the hit on the Red Wings player in OT you could say that both were similar. However, the Cooke hit gets called because… it’s Cooke and the other one doesn’t because it wasn’t really boarding.

    Also, introducing some kind of challenge system would help a lot. Like I wrote in another comment, limit the overuse by the coaches by implementing penalties for challenging a good call (lost timeout, faceoff in defensive zone without a change, delay of game penalty), etc. It doesn’t slow down tennis too much, it’s also present in volleyball and it passed the test.

  20. “A good referee is supposed to go as unnoticed as they possibly can.”

    I completely disagree with this mindset. This mindset should have gone the way of the dinosaurs when the new standard was brought in. If the referees had effectively managed the new standard the culture would have changed by now, but soon as we got to playoffs, even that first year, we went right back to the old standard.

    The other thing no one seems to think about is that by not making the call against one team, you are really just punishing to team that should be getting the powerplay. It isn’t as noticable, and you can say that it means you don’t affect the outcome but the fact is, by not making a call that should be made, you are in fact making an impact too. The team that earned that powerplay is now affected because they are not being rewarded the way they should be.

    As a referee, the NHL officiating pisses me off constantly. There is very little consistency in their calls, and the standard as a whole. They guess way too often as to what happened and what the call is. I was always told, if you didn’t see it you can’t call it.

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