setting the table

Published November 23, 1997 in The New York Times Magazine

In September, when Dr. Wayne Halliwell stood in front of the men who wear the stripes as National Hockey League referees, his message was simple carpentry. “These are guys who are under immense mental strain,” says the Montreal sports psychologist. “What I do is draw them a table. The top of it is their confidence. I tell them they’ve got four legs they have to maintain, mental, physical, technical, and tactical, and I tell them they have to have an improvement plan for each one.”

For the past couple of years, Halliwell has been practicing his mental medicine on the NHL’s 16 refs at their annual training camp. Mark it up to the changing times. Gone, perhaps, are the days when a hockey player who didn’t like the way the calls were going was just as likely to slash, shove, or outright pop the ref as he was to argue with him. But that doesn’t mean that life with a whistle is any easier nowadays. “I think it’s harder,” says Bryan Lewis, the NHL’s director of officiating, who remembers from the time he skated a beat in the 1970s the night a Philadelphia Flyer punched his nose bloody. “There’s more pressure now.”

The battle with the other major league sports for fan share, the scrutiny that comes with TV cameras and their ability to show you screwing up in slow motion, the fact that the millionaires who play the game aren’t, as a class, above acting the part of spoiled adolescents – these days, there are any number of reasons why a referee’s head might blow apart without the help of an irate left winger. And just to keep thing interesting, the threat of physical harm is never far away: earlier this month, the coach of the Florida Panthers went after rookie referee Dennis LaRue to dispute a goal by means of a convincing impression of a man with murder on his mind. The coach had to be restrained by his players; for his troubles, he was suspended for two games and fined $5,000.

With a couple of pre-season, table-sturdying pep talks, Halliwell, who also works with the Montreal Canadiens, does what he can to lend a hand. “It’s the nature of the job that they’re constantly being evaluated by everybody around them,” he says. “What they can’t do is concentrate on that. They have to focus, to be in the moment.”

Is Halliwell helping the refs keep it all together? Kerry Fraser, who in his 17 years as an NHL ref, has been in many moments, including one involving a fan-launched lawsuit stemming from a disallowed goal, says he’s been handling things pretty well on his own. “I’ve learned that you have to eliminate all external influences,” says Fraser. “And you have to overcome a lot of your human nature.”

Like when a left winger twice your size gets in your face for shipping him to the penalty box? “In this business, you have to learn to deal with rejection,” Fraser says. “If you meet disrespect with respect, you’ve always got a win-win situation.”

So could it be that Halliwell’s services are redundant? “That’s fine,” the doctor says. “With all my clients, my goal is for them to be emotionally autonomous. To be aware enough that they don’t need me.”`