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.”

old guard: a brief history of aged nhlers

Don’t Let Go The Coat: The year before he became Montreal’s original Canadien (and nine years before he made his NHL debut at age 38), here’s Jack Laviolette, left, and a pal … possibly Didier Pitre, which is what the original caption says. Given the look of him and the date offered (1908), I’m not entirely convinced.

The NHL debut that Connie Madigan made on this date in 1973 is notable because, at 38, the St. Louis defenceman was, well, in hockey terms — elderly. For 14 years he’d laboured in the minor leagues before getting his break, mostly with the WHL Portland Buckaroos, with whom he earned (not necessarily in this order) a nickname, Mad Dog, and a reputation for not letting the rules of the game compromise his style of stopping opponents. “All knees, elbows, and snarly looks” is how a Vancouver paper summed it up in 1968. “He hurts,” a rueful and respecting opponent said in 1971. That was the same year Madigan served a lengthy suspension for punching a referee, knocking him out.

Madigan was pleased, in ’73, to have finally made the big time. “Even after waiting all these years,” he said, “it was still quite a thrill playing in my first game. I’m just glad to be here, although I’ve always thought I should have been here sooner.” The Blues were playing Vancouver the night he premiered, and on his first shift Madigan gave the puck away to a Canuck, Barry Wilkins, whose own inadvertent pass eventually went to the Blues’ Pierre Plante, who scored — so no assist for Madigan, but not a terrible start. He took no penalties from referee Dave Newell, who happened to be the very guy he’d punched in ’71. “It didn’t bother me any that it was him,” Madigan said. “He leaves me alone.”

Madigan finished the year with St. Louis, getting into 20 regular-season games in all, then five more in the playoffs. That was all for Connie Madigan in the NHL; he finished his career after another few seasons in the minors.

Madigan was then (and sometimes still is) deemed the NHL’s “oldest rookie.” The definition of what constitutes one of those in the NHL has changed over the years. Since Mad Dog’s stint in the league, it’s been narrowed to exclude the exceedingly mature: “Any player at least 26 years of age (by September 15th of that season) is not considered a rookie,” the league’s policy now stipulates.

That doesn’t change the fact that Madigan remains one of the most aged players ever to have waited for most of his career to skate in the big league. Despite what you may have heard, he’s not the oldest of the old. In fact, I think he’s no better than the third oldest player to make an NHL debut.

First would be Lester Patrick, elected to the Hall of Fame in 1947. He was 43 and coaching the New York Rangers when he inserted himself into his own line-up for a game on defence in 1927. The following spring in the playoffs, he made a more famous appearance, replacing an injured Lorne Chabot in the Ranger goal. (More on that here.)

Then, next: Jack Laviolette, Hall of Fame class of 1963. Born in Belleville, Ontario, in 1879 — he died, at 80, in 1960 — he’s the most original Montreal Canadien you can name, the team’s first hire in 1909 when it came into being as Le Club de Hockey Le Canadien. As manager and coach, he built the team; on the ice, he captained it from the defence that first futile year, when Le Canadien finished at the bottom of the seven-team National Hockey Association standings.

Laviolette would soon cede the managing, coaching, and captaining to others — George Kennedy, Adolphe Lecours, and Newsy Lalonde succeeded him, respectively, in 1910-11. Continuing on the defence, Laviolette did (briefly) get the captaincy back the following year, and played on as an influential member of the NHA Canadiens through the war years. In 1916, he helped the team win the Stanley Cup.

He was still in the picture as the team prepared for a new season in November of 1917, even as the old league was dissolving and a new one materializing.

The latter was, of course, the NHL, and when its four teams got going on the Wednesday night of December 19, 1917, Laviolette was the eldest of its players at 38 years, 145 days. (On his St. Louis debut, Connie Madigan was 38 years, 125 days.)

Canadiens were in Ottawa that opening night, where the local Citizen lamented the home team’s lacks (Frank Nighbor, Horace Merrill) while singing the virtues of the visitors. Montreal “skated out with one of the finest all around hockey machines they have ever had.” Anchored by Georges Vézina in goal, Canadiens counted on Joe Hall and Bert Corbeau on defence and a forward line led by Lalonde, Didier Pitre, and Joe Malone. Jack Laviolette was a substitute by now, along with Billy Coutu and Louis Berlinguette.

In his role as a reliever, the Citizen said, Laviolette showed he had “lost little of his speed and snap.” Montreal prevailed on the night by a score of 7-4 with Laviolette notching an assist for his troubles — the only one he’s credited with in his 20-game NHL career, to go with two goals.

I don’t know what Laviolette’s plans were for the following year, but his hockey future was decided in May of 1918. His off-season gig at that point was as manager of the Joffre Café in Montreal; he also had a thing for speed. For as long as he’d starred on the ice, Laviolette had excelled at other sports, as well: he was a superior lacrosse player and excelled at racing both motorcycles and automobiles.

He seems to been driving one of his racing cars in a non-competitive setting one night in the Montreal neighbourhood of Longue-Point, near the river, when the car skidded and hit what’s described in contemporary accounts as an “iron tramway pole.” Two friends who were with him escaped unhurt, but Laviolette’s injuries were such that surgeons ended up amputating his right leg below the right knee. That was the grim news the Gazette reported in the days following the accident — though subsequent reports that summer had him losing his left foot.

That might warrant further investigation. Some more historical housekeeping might be in order here, too, in the matter of Laviolette’s NHL coaching career. Consult the usual trusted sources — Hockey Reference, say, or Canadiens’ own historical reservoir — and you’ll find Newsy Lalonde listed as the team’s coach for 1918-19. Like Laviolette before him, he was multi-tasking in those years, coaching, playing, and captaining the team. But that December, as the new season was getting underway, several newspaper reports had Jack Laviolette coming on as coach — or, in the terminology of the day, trainer. (Just to confuse things, head coaches were in that early era often also referred to as managers.)

The day of the team’s first practice, for instance, Tuesday, December 10, 1918, the Gazette notes that at Jubilee Rink, at 7 p.m., Laviolette (“whose hockey career is finished”) “will make his initial appearance as trainer.”

“Laviolette has been given charge of the team, and should make good in the position.”

The Ottawa Citizen mentions him, too, as Canadiens’ trainer in December, with an intriguing coda: “He will give an exhibition of skating between the periods.” Pluck that thread and you might extract an item from Toronto’s Daily Star in which Toronto coach Charlie Querrie mentions this same plan. “Querrie says that Laviolette already handles his artificial foot so well that strangers never notice his disability,” is how that report ends.

Did Jack Laviolette end up coaching the Canadiens for some of their schedule in 1918-19 or did he simply entertain the faithful between periods? I don’t have much more to go on either way, at this point. If you’re reading the old newspapers, you’ll find that he fades from the page — until early February, when his name emerges one more time. “Happy” Jack Laviolette, the Ottawa Citizen tags him, announcing that he may that very day get up on skates and give them a go.

“He threatened to put them on early this winter, but somehow or other refrained,” the report continues. Depending on how things go, and given the scarcity of NHL referees, the Citizen suggests that Laviolette may soon be enlisting as an arbiter. That doesn’t seem to have happened, though. The final line of the Citizen’s update doesn’t really clear up the coaching mystery, either, noting that “Jack has been acting as a sort of a coach and adviser to the Canadien hockey team.”

reflemania

In The Throes Pose: On the night of November 2, 1947, Montreal’s 4-2 win in Chicago ended in this mess. The linesmen struggling to break it up are (left) George Hayes and Mush March. The latter has a grip on Canadiens’ Butch Bouchard, who’d later stand accused of punching Hayes. Hayes, for his sins, has a grip on (white sweater) Chicago’s Ralph Nattress and (beneath him) Montreal’s Jimmy Peters, both of whom would be assessed majors.

The Chicago Black Hawks lost the first five games they played to open the 1947-48 NHL season. When, in early November, they lost a sixth, 4-2 at home to Montreal, Hawks’ president Bill Tobin decided it was time for a change. The one he had in mind turned out to be the biggest trade in NHL history, with the Black Hawks’ Max Bentley, the league’s incumbent leading scorer, heading to Toronto with Cy Thomas in exchange for Gus Bodnar, Gaye Stewart, Bud Poile, Bob Goldham, and Ernie Dickens. For the Black Hawks, it didn’t change much: they lost their next game, against Boston, and finished the season in the NHL’s basement.

Their November opponents from Montreal didn’t fare a whole lot better that year: they ended up just ahead of Chicago, out of the playoffs. But on the night of Sunday, November 2, in Bentley’s last game as a Black Hawk, Canadiens managed to come out on top. The chaos that’s depicted here, above, came about in the last minute of the third period. When the wrestling was finished, there were major penalties for Montreal’s Bob Carse and Jimmy Peters as well as for the two Hawks they battled, Ralph Nattrass and goaltender Emile Francis, respectively. (It was, the Chicago Tribune noted, Francis’ second fight in as many games; against Detroit, on October 29, he messed with Ted Lindsay, and vice-versa.) On this night, Canadiens’ defenceman Butch Bouchard earned himself a match penalty for the crime of (the Tribune) “assaulting referee George Hayes while Hayes was trying to act as peacemaker.” The Globe and Mail told pretty much the same tale, but amped up the headline: “Free-for-All Climaxes Chicago Tilt; Bouchard Punches Ref; Canucks Win.”

Hayes was working the game as a linesman, along with Mush March; the game’s (sole) referee was George Gravel. Still, for Bouchard to be attacking any of the game’s officials would seem to spell trouble for the big Montreal defenceman. None of the newspapers reporting on the incident had much in the way of detail to offer, including Montreal’s Gazette, which reported that NHL President Clarence Campbell was waiting to get Gravel’s report on the game. The Gazette’s synopsis, in the interim: the game was “hard-fought;” Hayes hailed from Ingersoll, Ontario; Bouchard, weighing in at 200 pounds, was banished “after landing blows” on the linesman.

Except that — just maybe — did no blows land? By mid-week, the Canadian Press was reporting that “after a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding,” L’Affaire Bouchard was closed. The Montreal defenceman was fined $50 for his part in the upset in Chicago, but Campbell found him innocent of the charge of punching, and levelled no suspension. According to referee Gravel’s report, Bouchard merely pushed Hayes during the melee at the end of the game. “Bouchard,” CP said, “did not poke or hit anybody.”

He was free to play, therefore, in Montreal’s next game, and did so, later on that same week, when Max Bentley and the Toronto Maple Leafs visited the Forum. “It was a typical battle between these two teams,” the Gazette’s Dink Carroll enthused, “full of fast and furious play, with no quarter asked and none given.” Canadiens prevailed, 3-0, with goaltender Bill Durnan featuring prominently, with Bouchard’s help. The latter (Carroll decided) “was just about the best man on the ice.” He made not a mistake, and “won all his jousts with Wild Willie Ezinicki, the Leafs’ well-known catalytic agent.”

Alongside Butch Keeling, George Hayes was back on the lines, and while he and Bouchard seem to have managed to steer clear of one another, referee Bill Chadwick found himself featured in the paper next day for what seems like an eccentric call: