fine fettle: nels stewart pays the price

When the Montreal Maroons beat the Boston Bruins 3-1 on a Saturday of this date in 1928 at the Forum, it was Nels Stewart who led the way, scoring two of Montreal’s goals and assisting on another that Jimmy Ward scored. The Montreal Daily Star heralded Stewart’s performance, which followed, it seems, weeks of indifferent play.

“Gone was the lassitude,” the Star’s correspondent wrote, “which almost made strong men weep, and weak women bite their lips; gone was the heavy plowhorse style, which turned a racing steed on skates into a plodding Percheron; and gone was the almost abstracted gaze, the heaviness of arm, the hesitating motion of the hand …. Instead, there was a Stewart of a couple of years ago, smiling and alert with eyes that were shining with the joy of battle, anxious, and eager to show those fellows from Boston that they could not put anything over on him.”

Stewart didn’t fare so well with the referees presiding that night, Mickey Ion and Mike Rodden. In addition to incurring a pair of first-period minor penalties, Stewart finished the game $15 the poorer.

As the Gazette saw it, what happened was this: as Boston forayed into Maroon territory, Ion, who had his back to the Montreal bench, heard a voice cry out, “Hey, offside, offside.”

Blowing his whistle, the annoyed Ion asked Montreal coach Eddie Gerard who’d been yelling.

“Someone back in the boxes,” Gerard volunteered — an enthusiastic fan.

The referee paused a second and then, looking at Stewart, who was on the bench next to Gerard, told him, “Stewart, that will cost you $15,” before skating away to resume play.

As the Globe saw fit to explain it, Ion was invoking “the rule that none on the bench shall coach or make unnecessary noise.”

king toot

Whistleblower: Today marks the 120th anniversary of the birth of King Clancy, superstar NHL defenceman, long-serving referee, sometime coach. Born in Ottawa on a Tuesday of this date in 1902, Clancy played a decade with his hometown Senators in the 1920s, winning two Stanley Cup championships, before joining the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1930. With the Leafs, he skated a further seven seasons and got in on another Cup. The photo here dates to April of 1947, when Clancy was 45 and reffing in the finals that saw Toronto dismiss the Montreal Canadiens four games to two. (Image courtesy of Toronto Public Library)

collateral damage: a faceful of rocket richard’s stick, and gloves, and other adventures with an nhl whistle

Purpled Hayes: That’s rookie referee George Hayes on the ice in January of 1947 at Maple Leaf Gardens, struck down by Maurice Richard’s flying stick. Attending the patient is linesman Eddie Mepham. Richard looks on with interest and, I think, concern; that’s the Rocket’s stick still airborne behind Hayes. Leafs’ #7 is Bud Poile.

The Toronto Maple Leafs won the game, but it was this photograph of stickstruck referee George Hayes that ended up making the front page of the Globe and Mail on the morning after, 75 years ago this week.

Welcome to life as an NHL official in the late 1940s. Well, the turbulent times of Hayes, anyway, whose start in the league was auspicious for all the wrong reasons, and whose temperament, — and/or lifestyle — and/or suspicion of doctors — didn’t seem to promise much in the way of a long career.

And yet, and yet: in the course of a 19-year career, Hayes would become the first NHL linesman to work 1,000 games. All told, he skated in 1,549 NHL games, regular-season, playoff, and all-star.

The scene above? On Wednesday, January 15, 1947, just months into that tenure, Hayes was working the whistle in Toronto as the Leafs entertained the Montreal Canadiens. Syl Apps and Gaye Stewart got the goals Toronto needed, but (said the Globe’s Jim Vipond) goaltender Turk Broda was “the main factor” in Toronto’s 2-1 win. It cemented the Leafs’ hold on first overall in the NHL, with Montreal standing second.

Here’s Vipond on the mishap depicted here, which Hayes suffered in third period:

Five stitches were necessary to close the gash which split open his left eyebrow. He returned to finish his job after being patched up in the Gardens hospital. Hayes was struck by Maurice (The Rocket) Richard’s stick which accidentally flew out of the Montreal player’s hands. A fraction of an inch lower and the referee might have lost an eye.

Fans at Maple Leaf Gardens booed the very notion of the 32-year-old referee as it was announced that he’d been hurt. For Vipond, that was a “new low for sportsmanship” in Toronto sporting annals. “And the mild clapping when he returned stitched up only partly atoned for the misdemeanor.”

Born in 1914 in Montreal, Hayes grew up in Ingersoll, Ontario. “I could skate before I could walk,” he told a newspaper reporter in 1975. He learned his officiating chops in the OHA and AHL. In 1946, he was considered one of the top amateur referees in Canada. He was, no question, of the busiest: through the 1945-46 season, he officiated 105 games, including the Memorial Cup final, travelling some 32,000 kilometres that year as he attended to his duties.

It was interim NHL President Red Dutton who signed him to a big-league contract in April of ’46. The salary was $2,000 a year, with a bonus of $25 paid for each game he refereed.

By the time Hayes started his new job that fall, former NHL referee Clarence Campbell had taken the helm of the NHL. The six-team league, which played a 60-game schedule, employed just four referees that year: Hayes joined King Clancy, Bill Chadwick, and Georges Gravel on the whistle-blowing staff, who were supported by a dozen or so linesmen.

It was as a linesman that Campbell first eased Hayes into his new job, through October and November of ’46. He got his first assignment as a referee in Boston, where on a Wednesday night, November 27, he adjudicated a 5-2 Bruins’ win over the New York Rangers. He seems to have done just fine, which is to say he managed to stay out of the papers. Let the record show that the very first infraction he whistled was committed by Bruins’ centre Milt Schmidt, a cross-check.

It was one of only two penalties Hayes called on the night, which presumably pleased Campbell who, to start the season and his regime, had declared that he’d told his referees to err on the side of silence. “There’ll be a full 60 minutes of action,” he promised. “I’ve instructed all officials to keep the game moving and to lay off the whistle unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

The first blood Hayes spilled in his NHL career would seem to have been on New Year’s day of 1947, when he was reffing Leafs and Red Wings in Toronto. “Gorgeous George essayed to wrestle [Leaf] Bud Poile and [Wing] Pete Horeck — both at the same time — and finished up counting his teeth carefully,” Jim Coleman wrote in the Globe and Mail. Actually, he got a stick in the nose in the melee and the game was delayed while he went in search of patchwork.

The encounter with Richard’s stick came next, which had Coleman calling him “a scarred hireling.” Following in quickish succession was another game featuring Montreal, this one in Detroit, in which Canadiens’ Ken Mosdell was so irked by a penalty that Hayes had assessed him that the centreman (as the Gazette described it) skated hard against Hayes’ leg and had him stumbling” Hayes stayed up; Mosdell got a 10-minute misconduct for his efforts.

Around this same time, it was reported that Campbell had taken the league’s newest referee aside for a chat in the wake of criticism (notably from the Detroit Red Wings) that Hayes was letting too much go in the games he was overseeing.

If so, Hayes seems to have got the message: at the end of the next game he reffed, a torrid one between Toronto and Chicago, he announced that he was augmenting the penalties he’d assessed with $25 fines to four players who’d been brawling. (His accounting, as it turned out, was slightly off: one of those punished was Leaf left winger Nick Metz, though it was his teammate and younger brother, right winger Don Metz, who’d been in the melee.)

George Hayes’ rookie season didn’t end quietly. That February, in another fractious game between Toronto and Montreal, he gave the notoriously peaceable Leaf captain Syl Apps a 10-minute misconduct. Here’s the Globe and Mail’s Al Nickleson describing what happened:

Apps, who had only one minor penalty up to Sunday, received his misconduct after a shoving and high-sticking bee in the Canadien end. Not on the ice at the time the fracas began, Apps said that as team captain, he skated out to talk to the referee after the whistle had blown. Hayes, he said, told him the penalty was for having too many men on the ice. No penalties were given participants in the fracas.

According to Jim Coleman, as Apps skated to the penalty box, Montreal’s designated rankler Murph Chamberlain followed along to apply his needle: “There goes the Byng trophy, Syl, old boy.”

Maybe so, maybe not: what’s true is that when the post-season votes were tallied that year, Apps was second to Boston winger Bobby Bauer. Hayes’ iffy misconduct was, by then, missing from Apps’ charge-sheet: upon review, Clarence Campbell deemed that Hayes had erred and so erased the penalty from the league’s records. That was an NHL first at the time and, as far as I know, it hasn’t happened again.

March of 1947 had its own trials for Hayes. After a playoff game between Montreal and Boston, Canadiens’ GM Frank Selke declared his officiating “the worst I’ve seen in my life.”

Rocket Richard again figured in the narrative, though this time he was the one who was cut, in a clash at the boards with Boston’s Ken Smith. The former felt the latter deserved a major, but Hayes called a minor, and when Richard slapped his stick on the ice in disgust, Hayes drew one his 10-minute misconducts from his quiver. Asked about Hayes after the game, Selke said, “Clarence Campbell shouldn’t have sent out a child to do a man’s job.”

Campbell came out in defence of Hayes on that occasion: he had “handled the game quite competently.” But the following season, Hayes was back working as an NHL linesman, mostly, his reffing assignments much reduced. Not that he was, on the lines, protected from further harm: in the first weeks of the 1947-48 season, he was either pushed or punched by Montreal defenceman Butch Bouchard, who was duly fined $50.

In 1954, Hayes got to rekindle his relationship with Rocket Richard. This was late December, just three months before Richard punched another linesman, Cliff Thompson, in the face on the way to a match penalty and the suspension that exploded in an eponymous riot. It was Leafs and Canadiens again, in Toronto, and Richard was sparring with Leaf centre Bob Bailey who, as the Rocket later told it, gouged at his eyes. Here’s Richard’s account of what happened next, from his 1971 Stan-Fischler-assisted memoir:

When I got up I was madder’n hell. But I couldn’t see very well. George Hayes, the linesman, was trying told hold me off, and that got me even angrier, because all I wanted to do was get back at Bailey. Hayes didn’t mean any harm to me but I was furious over anybody trying to hold me so I went after Hayes. I didn’t hit him with my fist; just my gloves with a sort of “get away, man, you’re bothering me” kind of push. I just didn’t want to see anybody around me. But Hayes was big and strong and he managed to keep me away. I got fined good for that one and, even worse, I didn’t catch up with Bailey.

“Molesting an official” was the charge entered by Clarence Campbell in fining Richard a total of $250 for that incident.

Hayes was an imposing figure on the ice in his day, 6’3’’, 200+ pounds. “Ox-like” was a description invoked at the time of his death, in 1987. “He used to smell trouble,” NHL referee Art Skov said then. “He’d step between players. He knew how to talk to guys like the Rocket and calm them down. He saved me and a lot of other referees a lot of trouble.”

Break It Up: Linesmen Mush March (left) and George Hayes attend a scuffle during the Bruins’ 3-1 win over the Black Hawks at Chicago Stadium in December of 1950. “There were several fights in the final period resulting from the Hawks’ general frustration at not being able to score,” UPI noted in a write-up of the game, “but no one was hurt.” Embrangled here, that’s the Bruins’ Milt Schmidt, who’d end up winning the Hart Trophy that year as NHL MVP, atop Chicago’s Pete Babando. Referee Bill Knott punished the combatants with two-minute penalties, for roughing. Embrangled here, that’s the Bruins’ Milt Schmidt atop Chicago’s Pete Babando. Referee Bill Knott punished the combatants with two-minute penalties, for roughing.

Skov, who started as a linesman in the later 1950s, remembered Hayes telling him and his fledgling colleagues never to touch Richard, no matter what. “Talk to him, talk about anything,” Skov recalled Hayes saying, “the weather, the news, anything, but never handle him. When the Rocket was mad, he was mad. He might do anything.”

Obituaries would, eventually, cite Hayes’ individualism, hot temper, his stubbornness, love of argument, his drinking.

There was the story of his days as a talented amateur baseball player playing for the Tillsonburg Pandrieds in southern Ontario. Those came to an abrupt halt in 1940 when he took exception to the effrontery of an Aylmer second baseman. “I hauled off and broke his nose,” Hayes later recalled. In the ruckus that ensued, Hayes picked up an umpire and (as he told it) threw him over a fence.

Lionel Conacher was chairman of the Ontario Athletic Commission at the time, and it was the former NHLer who banned Hayes from playing any sports. By the time he was re-instated, he’d taken up as a hockey official.

The episode, Hayes said, taught him “tolerance for the player’s point of view.”

“I wanted to treat them the same as I’d like to be treated.”

Whisky (Canadian Club) and beer (Molson’s) were his drinks. There was the story that when Hayes started working the lines in the NHL, Campbell and referee-in-chief Carl Voss thought that putting him under King Clancy’s wing might regulate his intake. “Campbell knew King didn’t drink,” Hayes had once recalled,” and I did. But he didn’t know that King would sit up with me until five in the morning and drink ginger ale.”

“Hayes makes no secret of his drinking,” a 1965 profile reported, adding Hayes’ own disclaimer. “Sure, I took drinks after a game,” he said. “Who doesn’t? The players do, the officials do. This is a tough racket. But I’ve never taken a drink before a game. I’ve never been in a bar before a game.”

Hayes was fined, apparently, for having a friendly post-game drink with a couple Chicago Black Hawks, Pierre Pilote and Frank Sullivan: $50.

He got into trouble in 1961 for his travel habits: Campbell suspended him for two weeks for going coach on trains to games instead of riding first class while still charging the NHL for the more expensive ticket. At the time, Hayes insisted it wasn’t about the money. “I just can’t sleep in a sleeper, but I can sleep in a day coach.”

That may have been so; he also later said that all the officials were doing it. “the league only allowed us $10 a day and that was supposed to pay for the hotel, meals, taxis, and our laundry. We went in the hole every day. That’s why I rode day coaches — to make up the losses.”

“It would make you $20 or $30 per trip.”

Campbell said that NHL officials had no choice in the matter: they needed a good night’s sleep before a game. “We want officials who are fit and in proper condition to work,” he said.

In 1963, Carl Voss docked Hayes $50 for taking the ice unshaven for an afternoon game.

If it doesn’t sound like a sustainable relationship that Hayes and his employers had, well, no, it wasn’t. It came to its professional end in 1965 when Campbell required all NHL officials to undergo an eye test and Hayes refused.

“Hell,” he protested, “I’ve tested my eyes for years in bars reading the labels on whisky bottles. I can still do it, so who needs an eye test? A guy is an inch or two offside and I can call it from 85 feet away. There’s nothing wrong with my eyesight and there never has been.”

“We all took the test, except George,” Art Skov said in 1987, “and nobody could talk him into it. The part of it is, the guy doing the test was a war buddy of referee Eddie Powers and, even if you were blind as a bat, he was going to give you a good report.”

Campbell wasn’t backing down, either. Again, Hayes was suspended, though this time there was no going back. He never worked another NHL game.

“My name was mud,” he said. “They were going to get me one way or another.”

Nineteen years he’d worked the NHL ice. Towards the end, the job that had started at a base salary of $2,000 was paying him $4,000 a year for working 80 games. Linesmen were by then getting $50 for any additional games they toiled at, $100 for a playoff game. For 1963-64, Hayes made about $6,300 all in.

In his exile, Hayes returned to the family farm in Beachville, in the Ingersoll area. He refereed benefit and oldtimers’ games. He became a sports columnist for the Sentinel-Review in nearby Woodstock, Ontario, weighing in regularly to barrack Voss and Campbell. A 1967 profile said that he walked ten miles a day while noting that it was five miles from his gate to the Ingersoll Inn, his favourite pub, and that he didn’t drive.

He was bitter but not surprised at being overlooked year after year by the Hockey Hall of Fame. “I’ve been blackballed,” he told a reporter in the spring of 1987 when Matt Pavelich became the first NHL linesman to be inducted. “You don’t get any money for it,” Hayes said, “so I don’t really care if I ever get elected. But I’m not bragging when I say I should be in it.”

Georges Hayes died that year, in November. He was 73, though he insisted until the end that he was 67. He had circulation problems in his legs, and had developed gangrene, but he refused to see a doctor, let alone visit a hospital. “George was just as stubborn as always,” his widow, Judy, told a reporter in the wake of his death.

“George just didn’t believe in doctors,” Art Skov said. “We had a tough time getting him sewed up when he’d get cut during games.”

“Nobody could ever tell George what to do,” Matt Pavelich said. “He had no faith in doctors or hospitals. He wanted things in his own hands and that was that, his way or no way.”

No-one from the NHL showed up for Hayes’ funeral, or sent a condoling word, though a phalanx of veteran officials was on hand: Skov and Pavelich, Bruce Hood, John D’Amico, Scotty Morrison, Ron Wicks.

A year later, George Hayes did find his way into the Hall of Fame, a member of the class of 1988 that also included Guy Lafleur, Tony Esposito, Brad Park, Buddy O’Connor, and Philadelphia Flyers’ owner Ed Snider.

Today, if you look him up in the Hall’s register of honoured members, you’ll find Hayes remembered as a “controversial, colourful, proud, and competitive” character who “loved hockey with his every breath.” He’s credited there, too, as a trailblazer in collegial politesse: he was, apparently, the first official to hand-deliver pucks to his colleagues for face-offs, rather than toss or slide them over.

c’mon, ref

With NHL referees back on the job tonight in Las Vegas, here’s a handy guide to the calls they won’t be making throughout game five of the Golden Knights’ Stanley Cup semi-final against the Montreal Canadiens. Kelly Sutherland and Eric Furlatt will be wearing the stripes tonight, taking over from Chris Lee and Dan O’Rourke, the much-maligned pairing whose handling of games three and four in the series stirred up so much Twitter ire and pundit pother. The illustration is Zzzzzzzzzap Hockey, a whimsical 1976 hockey miscellany for young readers. 

Below, that’s Scotty Morrison, the NHL’s referee-in-chief, in September of 1969, which is when 13 referees and 7 linesmen under his command went out on strike 24 hours before the league’s pre-season schedule was set to get underway. At issue: the officials, including refs Bruce Hood, Vern Buffey, and Bill Friday, had organized themselves into the NHL Referees’ and Linesmen’s Association only to have the league to recognize it. 

“I’ll referee myself,” Morrison declared in the face of the job action, though it didn’t quite come to that. Not all of the league’s officials had walked out on him: five senior officiants stayed on the job, working weekend exhibition games as planned. One game that was handled by a replacement referee was a notorious meeting in Ottawa between the Boston and St. Louis that featured a grisly stick-fight that ended up with the Blues’ Wayne Maki fracturing Ted Green’s skull. 

By the following Monday, the NHL and the officials had come to a seven-point agreement, covering pay and expenses and insurances, that put the men in stripes back on the ice.   

cooper smeaton: one ref to rule them all

Born in Carleton Place, Ontario, southwest of Ottawa, on a Tuesday of this date in 1890, Cooper Smeaton was the NHL’s very first referee-in-chief. It was the reffing that got him into the Hall of Fame, years and years of it, but Smeaton also played the game, served time (briefly) as an NHL coach, and presided as a trustee of the Stanley Cup. He got his start playing point — defence — with several Montreal teams in the 1910s, and was a teammate of Odie and Sprague Cleghorn’s with the New York Wanderers in the American Amateur Hockey League. He refereed in the old National Hockey Association before signing up, in 1917, to serve in the artillery with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He was a sergeant when he returned from France, and decorated, having been awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for saving an ammunition dump from destruction after it was hit by a German shell.

The Hall of Fame says that as a referee he was fearless and always showed good sense. Enforcing the rules in the NHL in the early 1920s was not, let’s recall, for the frail-hearted or self-doubtful. An account I’ve been browsing of a 1923 game between Canadiens and Senators at Montreal’s Mount Royal Arena describes how unruly fans besieged the Ottawa dressing room after the game, and how the referees, Smeaton and Lou Marsh, tried to defend the visitors. “Cooper Smeaton used his fists freely in the battle,” one report goes, “and the police grabbed two or three of the ringleaders.” It was in the aftermath of Billy Coutu’s attack on referee Jerry Laflamme that Smeaton was appointed as the NHL’s  one-ref-to-rule-them-all in 1927. He kept on as a full-time whistler, too, and continued to pay the price. In 1929, overseeing a game in New York between Canadiens and Americans, he ended up with a broken leg after tumbling into the boards in a melee of players. That was in the second period; he finished the game before seeking treatment.

In 1933, after Smeaton cracked a pair of ribs breaking up a fight between Boston’s Eddie Shore and Sylvio Mantha of Montreal, he was back on the ice a couple of days later for a game between Canadiens and Senators. He had to warn the visiting team, that night, for foul language. “The  Ottawans,” Montreal’s Gazette noted, “were very loquacious all evening, climaxing a night’s oratorical effort with a barrage of Smeaton as he left the ice.”

He took a break from refereeing in 1930 to coach the Philadelphia Quakers through their only NHL campaign, after the franchise moved from Pittsburgh, and before it folded for good in 1931. A couple of young Quakers, like Syd Howe and Wilf Cude, would go on to have fruitful NHL careers, but as a team that season, Philadelphia was a bust, winning just four of 44 games, and finishing dead last in the ten-team NHL.

Smeaton later said that he lost 40 pounds that year just from worrying whether there would be enough money day-to-day to keep the team on ice. He recalled waiting with his players on a Philadelphia street in hope that a messenger would show up from the bank. “We were scheduled to play in Chicago and it was getting near train time and we needed the money for the trip. The man finally arrived with the money but a succession of things like that can wear you out.”

it’s a hell of a job: hockey officials on the ladder to the big league

Whistleblowers 101: Officials line up on the ice in Buffalo at the 2019 NHL Exposure Combine for up-and-coming referees and linesmen (and women).

A version of this post appeared in Section B, page 8 of The New York Times on Wednesday, November 20, 2019.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — When Jessica Leclerc skates into the corner of the rink, she blurs. As she stops, she’s already hoisting an arm and whistling a penalty. A decisive chop of hand on sleeve signals a slash.

This is what hockey justice looks like, as it’s summarily served — or would, if this were an actual game. It’s just a drill. No actual hockey players have strayed or been sanctioned as Leclerc makes for the blueline to do it all again.

Welcome to day two of the National Hockey League’s Officials Combine, an annual late-summer festival of phantom calls and pucks dropped mostly in rehearsal. Over four days in mid-August, 86 young referees and linesman from across North America convened at Harborcenter, the two-rink training facility in Buffalo, New York, next door to the NHL Sabres’ lakefront home at KeyBank Center.

Every spring, on this very ice, the NHL puts the best draft-eligible juniors through their paces. This is a showcase like that, but with fewer fans, not so much media, and many more striped sweaters in evidence.

Part training camp, part clinic, the Combine is a job fair for some. Since 2014, the NHL has hired 27 officials who’ve auditioned at the Combine. Others here are in an earlier, exploratory phase, first-timers with a whistle, just trying to figure out whether the officiating life might be for them.

“Not everybody gets to the NHL,” said Al Kimmel, the league’s director of scouting and development for officiating. “It’s similar to the players: two or three per cent, just the very elite.”

As much as anything else, the idea in Buffalo is to create a safe, positively charged space for officials, empowering and building up a brand of fit, confident, assertive hockey arbiters who’ll go forth unto the ice of North America to keep its hockey players in line.

Chat Room: Camp attendee Jessica Leclerc consults with Stephen Walkom, head of NHL Officiating.

For more than a century, NHL officials have been policing the game with flawless efficiency, faithfully upholding the rulebook while tidily getting the job done without fear or favour.

Nobody remembers any of that.

It’s the errors that fix in the minds of players, coaches, and fans, the penalties that weren’t called, the goals that maybe shouldn’t have counted. “It’s a hell of a job,” NHL president Clarence Campbell said in 1964, ruminating on the referee’s lot. “A man has to have iron in his soul, the will to command.”

The fact that Campbell himself refereed in the NHL in the 1930s doesn’t seem to have softened his sympathy. As president, he once fined a linesman $50 for working a game unshaven. Several referees quit the NHL outright during his tenure, decrying a lack of league support.

Hockey is a whole other game than it was in those years, faster on the ice and an altogether bigger business. One thing that’s remained constant: the culture of high-definition scrutiny, complaint, and blame that officials inhabit.

For all the drama attending the St. Louis Blues’ unlikely June championship, this spring’s playoffs were also skewed by several officiating miscues. Notable among those:  an overtime goal in theWestern Conference finals between the Sharks and Blues that saw San Jose’s Timo Meier palm the puck to a teammate. That should have stopped play, but none of the four officials presiding saw it. Under the rules then in place, the play was unreviewable.

The goal, and the outrage, stood.

Asked for his view after Meier’s handling, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman barely kept his cool. “What I thought was, it would be good if I kept my head from exploding.”

Soon after the season’s end, the NHL’s Board of Governors approved a new raft of rules, expanding video review.

“You’re always doing a debrief,” Stephen Walkom said in Buffalo. Before he took over the top job for the first time in 2005, the more than 600 NHL games he refereed included a pair of Stanley Cup finals. He now oversees a staff that includes 44 referees and 38 linesmen as well as a network of managers, supervisors, and scouts.

“Officials make mistakes,” Walkom said, “and they’re always held accountable in that regard.”

If the speed of the game makes it more exciting to watch, it also heightens the challenges for those trying to keep tabs of hurtling pucks and bodies. The advent of video-review has aided officials; it can also raise stakes and pressures.

“At one time,” Walkom said, “people would think, oh, the referee was great because he got 80 per cent of the calls right. Now, if he gets 99 per cent of them right, but gets one wrong, it’s a big issue.”

“When you sit in my chair, you always hear that officiating needs to improve,” he said. “So you think, okay: how?”

Launching the Combine in 2014 was part of the answer. Going back to Campbell’s time and beyond, the NHL’s system for keeping the league supplied with officials was never particularly systematic.

“The resources and the focus on officiating was kind of limited,” said Al Kimmel. “We run it just like a team now. Bring in new draft picks every year and watch them develop and push the group in front of them to make everybody better.”

“In this day and age,” Walkom said, “whether you’re a linesman or a referee, you need to be an athlete.”

Schooling: In Buffalo, officials clattered, skates on, into classrooms to face-off with laptops that took them through suites of visual drills appraising depth perception and information-processing.

In Buffalo, Leclerc and her colleagues divided their wakeful hours between ice and the nearby gym. There they dashed and pedaled and planked, working themselves into one sweat after another under the attention of high-performance fitness instructors and staff from Walkom’s NHL officiating office.

They clattered, too, skates on, into classrooms to face-off with laptops that took them through suites of visual drills appraising depth perception and information-processing. In another room they focussed on interactive screens streaming an app, uCall, designed to test how fast they reacted to plays unfurling in real time.

Throughout the weekend, attendees also picked up sticks to play in a tournament of scrimmages in which they took turns officiating under the guidance of Combine graduates now working in the NHL. The hockey was fast, skillful, and mostly whistle-free. The clamor from the benches wasn’t all for goals that went in: on this ice, with this crowd, an iffy offside was just as likely to bring down the house.

Corey Syvret was a Florida Panthers draft pick who played eight seasons as a minor-league defenseman before he attended the Combine in 2017. He adapted quickly enough to be hired by the NHL that same fall. Now 30, he’s worked two full American Hockey League seasons along with more than 30 regular-season NHL games.

The intensity is what he values in his new calling, being “captured” by the game he’s in.

“As a hockey player, you’re kind of reckless of there,” he said in Buffalo between mentoring sessions with the new generation of officials. “You’re trying to see what you can get away with.”

A native of Saco, Maine, Leclerc, 34, came to the Combine having officiated hockey since she was 13. When she’s not on the ice, she works as an administrator at an assisted-living facility; when she is, she has supervised youth and tier-one junior hockey and served as a lineswoman at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Women are still waiting for their chance to work an N.H.L. whistle. Eleven women attended this year’s Combine, four of whom went on to work NHL pre-season rookie tournaments. Without committing to a timeline, Walkom said that it was a matter of when they took the next step, not if.

Leclerc isn’t sure she’ll be part of that, but that doesn’t stop her from focussing on the ceilings she’s intent on breaking. “Hopefully,” she said, “by being here this weekend it really shows that women can compete, and that gender really has no role in officiating.”

“You better love it,” Walkom said of those wondering whether a life in stripes might be for them. Friday lunchtime, as camp attendees lined up for tuna wraps and pasta salad, TVs overhanging the concourse showed highlight reels from the NHL season past. Instead of extravagant goals by Sidney Crosby, the cameras followed mic’d–up refs as they colorfully called it like they saw it.

Walkom stood by smiling. “You’re perfect at the anthem. And then you’re slipping away.”

“The best golfer in the world is the one that recovers the quickest from the bad shot,” he said. “In hockey, you make mistakes, and you recover quickly. You need that mindset, as a ref.”

(All images: Stephen Smith)

a man has to have iron in his soul

Whistle Stop: Originally from Rochester, New York, Tyler Edwards, 27, played Division I college hockey for Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. In August, he took part in the annual NHL Officials Combine in Buffalo, taking a turn in stripes for the first time. “I’m getting to the point where I think this is a cool thing to explore and to figure out if it’s something that I want to do in the future.” (Image: Stephen Smith)

“It usually starts on a frozen pond,” Robert Lipsyte wrote in The New York Times in 1964, “in British Columbia or Saskatchewan or Ontario, when a boy on skates realizes he will never be as quick and strong as his friends. So he offers to referee their games.” So began Lipsyte’s review of the life and lot of NHL referees. NHL president Clarence Campbell, himself a former referee, was one authority Lipyste consulted. “It’s a hell of a job,” Campbell told him, memorably. “A man has to have iron in his soul, the will to command. And he can’t be a drinker — he’ll have thousands of hours with nothing to do.”

Fifty-five years on, I have a feature in today’s Times reporting from the NHL’s annual Officials, the late-summer festival of phantom calls and practice puck-drops that prospective officials attend in Buffalo, New York, to train and test themselves while being assessed by the NHL’s officiating high command. You can scout the online version here.

 

boxed set

The officials on duty at Detroit’s Olympia for the Red Wings playoff meeting with Boston’s Bruins on the Thursday night of March 28, 1957, were (from left) referee Frank Udvari along with linesmen Matt Pavelich and George Hayes. Once they hit the ice, the home team ended up prevailing, by a score of 7-2, squaring the semi-final at a game apiece. Of note: Detroit goaltender Glenn Hall finished the game despite taking a first-period puck to the face and, to repair the resulting damage, 18 stitches. The night was a busy one for Udvari — the busiest, in fact, in NHL playoff history: the 22 he called set a new post-season record. “The penalties stemmed from various reasons,” Marshall Dann of the Detroit Free Press reported. “Both teams decided to play it rugged at the start, returning to style the old-fashioned bodychecks so rarely seen. Then in the late stages when all was decided, the Bruins peevishly rammed away with the off-hand thought that maybe these rough tough Red Wings could be softened up for Sunday.”

department of bright ideas: refs in glass cages

Switch Up: In 1940, Herbie Lewis was out of the NHL, steering the AHL Indianapolis Capitals as player-coach. He had a bold plan to renovate the way referees called games, and where from, that put them in command of a system of lights. He even had a working model to show how it all might work.

Jason Kay is on the case in the latest edition of The Hockey News. “Do The Refs Really Suck?” is the headline over his editor-in-chief’s note therein in which he wonders whether NHL referees deserve the derision they get at playoff time. No, he concludes, they don’t. “Hockey officials arguably have the toughest job among pro sports referees,” he writes. “The question of speed + physicality + instantaneousness decisions = occasional errors.” Fans should understand, sympathize, stay civil. Oh, and hey, the NHL? Kay’s not the first to advocate, and reasonably enough, for the league to give officials “at least as much access to technology as viewers and spectators.”

None of that is going to calm the city of Boston, its Bruins, their fans, most fair-minded independents, pundits, and/or interested passersby. The story of Thursday night’s game, if you missed it:

Headlines from across the Boston mediascape echoed and amplified the local incredulity:

Marred by another controversial non-call in an already contentious postseason
(Boston Herald)

The clown show continues in Game 5: The NHL gets faster while the referees fall behind
(The Athletic)

Series deficit about more than officials, but Game 5 was a crime
(Boston Globe)

Meanwhile, down at the St. Louis Dispatch, the mood glowed a little lighter:  

Missed calls and the fallible refs whose whistles fail to blow aren’t new to hockey, of hockey; controversies relating to hockey’s rulebook are as old as the league itself. So too is the question of what to do about them. Social media takes care of defaming and dunning officials who are perceived to have erred, and the NHL is in the habit of exiling those who blunder, but the shaming and the shunning doesn’t actually solve anything. Twitter sizzled with suggestions (go back to the old single-referee system; call more penalties, period; wake the fuck up, @NHL).

Also:

This last notion isn’t an entirely new one.

It’s positively antique, in fact. Herewith, a couple of notions of how hockey refereeing might be overhauled from a couple of would-be hockey innovators of old. They dreamed, no question, of enhancing the quality of hockey officiating, but their missionarying also had mercy in mind: they wanted to remove referees to safety, where wrathful fans and players couldn’t reach them.

First up, Irvin Erb, who in 1930s served as manager of a couple of OHA teams in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. His main concern seems to have been for health and well-being of the referees, which is commendable. Here’s what he wanted to do, from a 1931 newspaper report:

Instead of having the officials on the ice, as at present, he would enclose them in a glass, sound-proof cage along the sidelines where they would be safe from the stormy protests of the crowd which sometimes takes the form of showers of coins, peanuts, chairs, and bottles.

The cage would be equipped with loud speakers, through which the referee’s decision could be made known. Competent referees who have found officiating on the ice too strenuous could return to the game, in Erb’s opinion.

Almost a decade later, Herbie Lewis, a Hall-of-Fame left winger, had his own plan for preserving referees from harm. Lewis played his entire career, 11 seasons, in Detroit, where he started as a Cougar in 1928, morphing subsequently into a Falcon when the franchise did, and then a Red Wing. By 1940, he was out of the NHL, coach the AHL’s Indianapolis Capitals while also still playing on their forward line.

“This may sound like a fairytale,” a report on his brainstorm began, “but there’s a hockey player who wants to do something for the poor, downtrodden referee.”

Lewis aimed to elevate officials above the fray:

Herbie would build a high perch for the referee, somewhat like those used by tennis officials. From there he would regulate the game with a system of lights and be out of the reach of irate players.

The lights, I guess, would be set into the boards, as shown in Lewis’ pictured prototype, above. A flash of red would stop play, with the amber indicating where the foul had happened. “Other lights on the scoreboard would show the nature of a penalty and on whom it was called.”

And so players would … escort themselves to the penalty bench? Restrain themselves from tussling, police their own fights, just skate away? Possibly would there be further, much brighter lights that the referee could zap into players’ eyes to illuminate their misconduct and/or temporarily blind them?

Lewis probably had it all worked out in detail. It’s likely he was ready to explain the whole luminous scheme just as soon as someone took it seriously.

“If we can get this kind of a system installed,” he advised, “we’ll have better officiating and less trouble.”

ron wicks, 1940—2016

Embed from Getty Images

Long-serving NHL referee Ron Wicks, who died on Friday in Brampton, Ontario, at the age of 75, got his big-league officiating start in the fall of 1960, not long after his 20th birthday. NHL refereeing supremo Carl Voss had invited him to audition that year, and in his memoir, A Referee’s Life (2010), he tells of catching the train from Sudbury and spending $3.50 for a night in Toronto at the King Edward Hotel. His novitiate at the Toronto Maple Leafs’ training camp in Peterborough, included a stint on the lines of a Leaf exhibition against the Black Hawks in which his duties included untangling a fight between Toronto’s Tim Horton and Chicago’s Moose Vasko. Hired as a linesman, he worked his first regular-season game on October 5, Rangers and Bruins at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Frank Udvari was the referee that night,  George Hayes the other linesman. “League president Clarence Campbell at this opener,” Wicks would later write, “and said I missed an offside by 20 feet.” He went on to work 79 games that year, for which he was paid $3,300. By the time he retired in the spring of 1986, he’d patrolled the ice for 1,800 professional games, including 1,072 as an NHL referee. This is one of those, above: on February 12, 1982, Wicks seeks refuge as Bob Lorimer of the Colorado Rockies clashes with Quebec’s Marc Tardif as Colorado’s Steve Tambellini goes for the puck in the foreground.

powers outage

Ed Powers Hawks-Leafs, slammed into baorad, “After three minutes of rest, Powers was able to continue.” Nov 11 1959

Horizontal Stripes: Slammed into the boards by (alleged) accident during a 1959 Leafs and Black Hawks game in Chicago, Eddie Powers took a moment. “After three minutes of rest,” a correspondent reported from the scene, “Powers was able to continue.”

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.

Red Kelly, MP and centre-iceman

Red Kelly, MP and centre-iceman

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. Continue reading

whistlestop

cl c + refs 1

Clarence Campbell was an old referee in 1946, as in erstwhile — it had been almost ten years since he’d worn the whistle in the NHL. He had a new job now: that September, the league’s board of governors elected him president during their semi-annual meeting at Montreal’s Windsor Hotel. It was an office he’d keep for 31 years. That first day, in a statement, Campbell had nice things to say about his predecessor, Red Dutton, and also this: “I have unbounded confidence in the future of hockey, not only in Canada and the United States, but throughout the whole world. As Canada’s national sport I believe it has made tremendous strides in the past 30 years and in my opinion there is no limit to its expansion not only on this continent but in Europe.”

A month later, Campbell was in Detroit for the start of the new season. That’s where he met, above, with a bevy of officials to read to them from the rulebook. From the left, that’s linesman Doug Young; referee Bill Chadwick; Campbell; linesmen Norval Fitzgerald; and Stan McCabe.

Campbell told reporters on that same visit that his directive to referees going into the season was to hold their noise. “There will be a full 60 minutes of action,” he said. “I’ve instructed all officials to keep the game moving and to lay off the whistle unless it’s absolutely necessary.” The Leafs and Red Wings didn’t make it easy for Chadwick, who ended up calling 12 penalties in a game that ended in a 3-3 tie. For the Leafs, the miscreants included Bill Ezinicki and Gus Mortson. For the Wings, Adam Brown somehow picked up the game’s lone fighting major, while a rookie making his NHL debut took two minors. Gordon Howe was his name, 18 years old. He scored his first goal, too.