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)

it’s easy — all you have to do is win

A birthday today for Scotty Bowman, whose 1,471 coaching wins (1,248 in the regular season) are unmatched in the annals of NHL history. The Stanley Cups he’s won as a coach and executive number 14, most of which (five) he famously raised in the 1970s as master motivator, superlative tactician, and sometime scold of several mighty aggregations of Montreal Canadiens. His Detroit Red Wings won three more Cups, his Pittsburgh Penguins another. His coaching career also included, of course, stints in St. Louis and Buffalo. Born on a Monday of this date in Verdun, Quebec, in 1933, Bowman turns 86 today.

On the 1997 occasion of Bowman’s 1,000th NHL win, St. Louis Blues’ GM Ron Caron was one colleague who paid tribute while offering insight into the famously hard core of Bowman’s success on hockey’s benches.

“He was close to Toe Blake,” said Caron, who’d served as a scout in Montreal during Bowman’s Canadiens’ tenure, “and he saw that Toe didn’t succeed early in his career because he wasn’t tough enough. Toe made the correction, and that was his idol. That was how he became the coach he is.”

all hat, four stanley cups

Today’s the day that Punch Imlach was born, on a Friday, in 1918, in a Toronto that was about to see the local professional team play for (and win) the Stanley Cup in the NHL’s first season. George was the name he was given that year; the nickname dates to the late 1930s, and seems (unfortunately) to have been concussion-based. Knocked out playing senior hockey for the Toronto Goodyears, Imlach is supposed to have revived and started swinging at teammates, who dubbed him “Punchy.” That was eventually trimmed as Imlach played on, never in the NHL, but notably with the QSHL Quebec Aces, with whom he would start his coaching career and oversee, in so doing, a young Jean Béliveau.

Imlach joined the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1958 as an assistant GM. In his first 11 seasons as Leaf coach, he steered the team to four Stanley Cups. Fired in 1969, he went to join the fledgling Buffalo Sabres as coach and GM. That’s the era from which this team-issued photo dates. “His dry acerbic wit is as much an Imlach characteristic,” the caption on the back explains, “as the intriguing hats he wears behind the players’ bench.” After a year-and-a-half’s tenure in Buffalo, he had another stint with the Leafs in the late 1970s, but it wasn’t pretty and — under Harold Ballard’s erratic stewardship — didn’t last. His 370 regular-season coaching wins remains a franchise record for the Leafs; he won 44 more in the playoffs, second in team history to Hap Day’s 49. Elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 1984, Punch Imlach died at the age of 69 in 1987.

this (last) week: a busted gumball machine of loose pucks

Keep Calm and Carey On: "Target Legacy" is what Victoria artist Brandy Saturley calls this painting of Carey Price, which she finished in May of this year. "An homage to Habs goaltenders," is how she describes it, "and to an iconic Neo-Dadaist artist. Can you guess which one?" For more of her work, hockey and otherwise, visit www.brandysaturley.com.

Keep Calm and Carey On: “Target Legacy” is what Victoria artist Brandy Saturley calls this painting of Carey Price, which she finished in May of this year. “An homage to Habs goaltenders,” is how she describes it, “and to an iconic Neo-Dadaist artist. Can you guess which one?” For hints and more of her work, hockey and otherwise, visit http://www.brandysaturley.com.

Gordie Howe got rousing get-wells from all around the league after word started to circulate last week that he’d suffered a “serious” stroke. He was recovering — improving, the family said — at his daughter’s home in Texas.

“One of the game’s true legends,” Matt Larkin from The Hockey News called him, taking note of the “outpour of nostalgia and people sharing their favorite memories of him, from his dominant play as the original power forward to the way he always took time for others and never minded being adored, as he understood what it felt like to be on the other end.”

With the man himself looking on via iPad, the Detroit Red Wings paid tribute to 86-year-old Mr. Hockey ahead of their Friday-night home game against Los Angeles.

Slava Malamud from Sport Express told Pavel Datsyuk that Howe was always a big fan of his. Datsyuk: “Don’t say was. Hope he still is. Hope I’ll see him in the room again real soon.”

Among the many odes sung as the week went by were several to Howe’s hands. The Leafs’ Cody Franson shook one of them about ten years ago. “He’s just got those worker hands. That leather skin. Those very big fingers.” Allan Muir from Sports Illustrated cited “a hearty clasp from a hand the size of a canned ham, accompanied by a smile.” Another Leaf, Stephane Robidas recalled meeting Howe in 2009: “It was a real handshake. Huge hands. Even at 81, I wasn’t going to mess with him.”

Former NHL referee Paul Stewart said, yes, he was Babe Ruth of hockey but also? “He is an even better man off the ice as a true family man.”

Back to the rink, though:

In terms of his play on the ice, even apart from his nearly superhuman longevity, Gordie was the prototype for playing a hard-nosed physical game that also incorporated a tremendous level of skill. As genuinely nice and laid back as he is off-the-ice, that’s how mean and competitive he was as a player.

Stephen Whyno of The Canadian Press talked to a goaltending great, Grant Fuhr, who has an autobiography out in which he talks about, among other things, the drugs he used to take when he was playing for the Edmonton Oilers.

Looking back on it, Fuhr doesn’t believe drugs hurt his performance.

“The hardest part of goaltending is to stay focused,” Fuhr said. “So the fact that you get a mental break away from the game is almost refreshing.”

Montreal went to Edmonton and lost 3-0. Canadiens’ fan Alan Doyle from Great Big Sea saw what they were doing there:

Showing the discipline of Champs, Habs resist the urge to score any goals at all against Oilers. Opponents seriously confused. Brilliant.

The Toronto Maple Leafs ailed. Were ailing. Okay, losing. Writer Stephen Marche wondered whether this is the worst Leaf team ever. “Emotionally this team feels like the most dispiriting,” he keened. Continue reading

this week: king mackerel, amberjack, bonito, barracuda

 On A Cold Road: Writer and rocker Dave Bidini strips down for a fantastic cause, the just-released Bare It For Books 2014 Calendar. Bidini — he’s April — has himself just published Keon And Me: My Search For The Lost Soul of the Leafs (Viking). Other writers joining him to pass the time in near-nudity include Yann Martel, Miranda Hill, and Steven Heighton. Proceeds from the calendar go to PEN Canada. For more information, visit www.bareitforbooks.ca. (Photo: Shelagh Howard for Bare It For Books, www.shelaghhoward.com)


On A Cold Road: Writer and rocker Dave Bidini strips down for a fantastic cause, the just-released Bare It For Books 2014 Calendar. Bidini — he’s April — has himself just published the sly and incisive Keon And Me: My Search For The Lost Soul of the Leafs (Viking). Other writers joining him to pass the time in near-nudity include Yann Martel, Miranda Hill, and Steven Heighton. Proceeds from the calendar go to PEN Canada. For more information, visit http://www.bareitforbooks.ca. (Photo: Shelagh Howard for Bare It For Books, http://www.shelaghhoward.com)

Henrik Lundqvist, the goalie for the New York Rangers, had a minor issue this week, and missed practice. The New York Daily News said it was a “minor issue.”

Kelly Chase, the former fighter who now broadcasts games for the St. Louis Blues, made the case that not enough fighting is causing mayhem in this year’s NHL. In his words (@Chasenpucks39): “Hits from behind UP! Injuries UP! Stretchers on ice UP! Number of suspensions at this of the year UP! Fighting DOWN! Hmmm”

Vanity Fair revealed its list of most stylish NHLers this — actually it was last week. “Arguably the most down-to-earth and least tabloid-friendly players, as a group, in professional sports, the men of the National Hockey League are usually lost under loose jerseys and protective masks during games,” gabbled the magazine. “Off the ice, their style may be noticeably more reserved than their football- or basketball-playing peers’, but they still know how to keep things cool, with looks that range from Power Broker to Nordic Gentleman.”

Henrik Lundqvist — “shows no fear of experimenting with color and pattern”— ranked at the top. Philadelphia’s Vincent Lecavalier ranked second (“tasteful use of open collars and V-neck shirts”) while Ottawa Senators Erik Karlsson (“defies the thuggish-defenseman cliché during his off hours in Ottawa with Euro-cut slim suits and button-downs that pop with color”) and Jason Spezza (“accessorizes his classically cut suits with polka-dot ties, candy-stripe shirts, and Don Draperian pocket squares”) rated seventh and ninth, respectively.

The goalie who stopped the pucks in 1980 that helped the USA’s “Miracle On Ice” team win Olympic gold was blogging this week for the Russian newspaper RIA Novosti. “As we get ever closer to the Olympic Games in Sochi in February,” wrote Jim Craig, “I want you to stop for a moment and think about your family.”

Sidney Crosby continued to lead the NHL in scoring this week and as he arrived in Toronto to play the Leafs, Damien Cox from The Toronto Star said that he was at the peak of his powers, now that all the concussion-related uncertainty that clouded the air just two-and-half years again has passed.

For his part, Crosby wanted to talk about Pittsburgh’s goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, who wasn’t one of those invited to Canada’s Olympic orientation camp in August. “He’s played really well,” Crosby said. “He’s definitely earned the right to be considered.”

Asked about the struggles of the New York Rangers, the team he used to coach, John Tortorella said, “I don’t work there anymore. I’m certainly not going to criticize. That’s not fair.”

Earlier in the week, the Rangers had waived their back-up goalie, the 16-year veteran Martin Biron, with an idea of sending him to minor-league Hartford. Biron: “This is not a fun feeling.” Continue reading