Nobody said it was easy, the life of a hockey referee. Russell Bowie was one of the best players to play the game before the NHL got started, winning a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Victorias in 1898. After he hung up his stick, he quite naturally took up a whistle, though that didn’t last too long. In 1911, mid-season, he quit. “The continual nagging of the players all through the season has bothered me a lot,” is what he told reporters. “I have decided that there is nothing in it for me. I have had enough hockey refereeing to last for the rest of my natural life.”
It’s not just the carping, either, that officials have to endure. “A referee has to be fast on his skates,” confided Cooper Smeaton, who wielded a whistle in the early days of the NHL. “He may at any moment be forced to hurdle sticks, climb on the fence, or instantly reverse his direction in order to get out of the way of a play. At that, we get plenty of cracks on the shins — perhaps not all of them strictly accidental.”
Fast isn’t always fast enough, of course, as referee Eddie Powers (above) learned in November of 1959 in a game at the Chicago Stadium between the hometown Black Hawks and the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs. In what we’ll call an unfortunate mishap, he found himself “slammed” into the boards by players fighting for a puck. “After three minutes of rest,” the papers reported next day, “Powers was able to continue.”
Four years and a few months later he was in Montreal. February. At 45, he was a veteran by then of seven NHL campaigns. He walked into NHL headquarters in the Sun Life building where he called Carl Voss, chief referee, out of a meeting to tell him, “I quit as of now.” He didn’t stay to see NHL president Clarence Campbell. According to Voss, Powers left after saying that the two secretaries present could serve as witnesses of his resignation.
Voss was surprised. Campbell regretted the loss — Powers was one of the most experienced referees in the league. “But we’ll get along without him.”
Powers had refereed a game on the last day of January, Toronto at Montreal. That was the start of it. The Maple Leafs shot down the Canadiens, 6-3 (Red Burnett’s view, in The Toronto Daily Star), or else erased a 2-0 Montreal lead and ran away with the game on four third-period scores (Pat Curran in the hometown Gazette). Either way, the Leafs’ Red Kelly scored a hattrick. He was playing centre; also, as widely reported, as an opposition Liberal MP for the riding of Toronto West, he was missing a tumultuous day in Parliament as Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s government tottered on the edge of dissolution over its nuclear arms policy and what the United States thought about it.
In Montreal, the Canadiens were close to detonation by force of sheer disgruntlement. Kelly’s second goal, they thought, was scored while the Leafs’ Bob Nevin was in the crease. Montreal goaltender Jacques Plante chased after referee Powers to remonstrate and, eventually, to demonstrate how to smash a goalstick to flinders.
The Gazette reported that the Habs thought that Nevin had kicked the puck into the net. Coach Toe Blake screamed so much that Powers gave him a bench minor.
That was in the second period. The third was no calmer. Powers doled out misconducts to Montreal’s Bernie Geoffrion and Toronto’s Carl Brewer followed by a game misconduct for Geoffrion, along with a $75 fine (Brewer’s was $25). Montreal’s Bill Hicke was also charged with a $25 misconduct for (as Red Burnett wrote it) “questioning linesman Ron Wicks’ eyesight and ancestry.”
There was a penalty shot, too, for Red Kelly. That’s how he completed his hattrick. There was the Montreal crowd, stirred to a frenzy (the Gazette said), chanting “We Want Storey.”
Common decency prevented Pat Curran from printing much of what Toe Blake had to say after the game. Red Burnett quoted directly on what he thought of Powers. “He’s too inconsistent. Some of his calls were bad and he missed so many that you have to say his work was putrid. The whole league is getting bush all around.”
Montreal-Matin had Blake saying that the NHL should investigate the officials because they gave the impression of having bet on the outcome of the game. “Don’t tell me he’s not working against us,” The Montreal Star contributed to vituperative quote-quilt. “He let’s everything go and then he calls a chippy penalty against us.”
La Presse checked in with Montreal’s PR director, Frank Selke, Jr.: “I don’t know how much referees get for each game, but if he got more than $10 for tonight’s game he was overpaid.”
Blake wasn’t pleased with his players, either. “Our guys quit like dogs after they tied it up,” he said. “Maybe I used the wrong tactics in blaming the referee. That gave them an excuse and they folded.”
NHL president Clarence Campbell weighed in, of course. He was going to check with Blake; if he admitted to saying what he was supposed to have said, the fine could run to $1,000.
Out in the wider world, while Campbell considered Blake’s case, John Diefenbaker’s government fell, and a federal election was called for April 8. Red Kelly wasn’t sure he was going to run for re-election. April was playoffs, after all. “I don’t even know if they want me,” he said of the electorate. “And, you know, this being a member of Parliament isn’t a good paying job.”
Campbell found that $200 was all he wanted from Blake, due immediately. His rebuke included a finding that the coach’s suggestion that the referees were betting on the game’s outcome were “completely unwarranted and unfounded.”
“It is,” he continued, “a serious reflection on the integrity of the officials and is clearly in violation of the league rules.”
And that’s when Eddie Powers quit his job, for which he was thought to be paid between $12,000 and $15,000 a year. Fresh enough in hockey’s collective memory was an earlier case of a referee jumping the NHL ship: three years earlier, in the spring of 1960, the man the fans had been waggishly calling for in Montreal decided he’d had enough.
Red Storey was the league’s senior official when, during a Stanley Cup semi-final in which Montreal eliminated Chicago, he failed to call a pair of alleged tripping penalties against the Canadiens. Campbell, himself a former NHL referee, at the game and didn’t mind offering an opinion: Storey “froze,” he said.
So Storey resigned. “I’m sick,” he said. “This thing is like a three-ring circus and the officials are being made the clowns.” At the time, the man the NHL appointed to blow the whistle in his place agreed with him. “Red is a hundred per cent right in this deal,” Eddie Powers said. “The front office has not backed up officials this year.”
He said the same thing now, in ’63. “I feel that the president of the league has not supported me. Also, I feel he hasn’t backed the referees in general during the past years in a strong enough manner. I feel that the fine of $200 is inadequate if one compared this fine with others that have been levied against players, executives and officials for far less offenses.”
Campbell argued. Rudy Pilous, Jack Adams, Punch Imlach: they’d all paid $200 for criticisms of referees in the recent past. Tommy Ivan, as a GM, paid $300: “it was though he had extra responsibility.”
“I have given the fullest support to Eddie Powers in this and all other cases,” Campbell was saying.
Powers sued. “The writ alleges slander,” The Globe and Mail reported. Campbell was clear — it was Toe Blake the suit named when he filed it at Osgoode Hall in Toronto. Also, the Montreal Canadiens, as his employer, and the Canadian Arena Company, which owned the cabs.
Cited for libel were the reporters who’d taken down Blake’s comments for Montreal-Matin, Jean-Paul Sarault and Jean-Pierre Sanche, along with the paper’s sports editor, Jacques Beauchamp.
More than a year passed before the case was scheduled to go to trial. In November of 1964, Campbell had been subpoenaed, Red Storey, too. Seventy prospective jurors were on hand in a City Hall courtroom before Mr. Justice Edson Haines of the Ontario Supreme Court, waiting to be winnowed down to six. Eddie Powers sat with his lawyer; Toe Blake was on his way, delayed in Rochester by fog.
Powers agreed to settle before the coach arrived. The money involved wasn’t disclosed, but the settlement did involve a retraction and apology from Blake, who admitted that what he’d said was entirely without foundation, he’d just been angry at losing the hockey game.
Two of journalists, Sarault and Beauchamp, also said sorry for printing what Blake had said. It was wrong, and they regretted the consequences.
As part of the deal, Powers asked to meet with the NHL’s Board of Governors within 30 days. I don’t know how that went, but when it was announced, Clarence Campbell was quick to say that he would try to arrange it. “There is certainly no guarantee that anyone will listen,” he added, “and absolutely no chance whatsoever he will return to the refereeing staff.”
Powers got the last word on that. He said meeting wasn’t about asking for his job back. “This was well known by Mr. Campbell and his remarks as quoted in the newspaper are a gratuitous insult to me.”
He was happy in his new job, as a safety inspector for the Construction Safety Association of Ontario. Plus: “I’ve said in the past that I would never work for Clarence Campbell or Carl Voss and this still holds true.”
(Red Kelly image courtesy HockeyMedia and The Want List)