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)

under review: our game, and everybody else’s

A version of this review first appeared, here, at H-Net Reviews.

Hockey: A Global History
Stephen Hardy, Andrew C. Holman
University of Illinois Press, 2018
600 pp. (paper), US$29.95/C$35

By the end of May, the winter had mostly receded from the upper third of the North American map, if not yet the nation’s appetite for hockey. While on Canada’s east coast the national junior championships were wrapping up, fans of the international game settled in across the country to see whether the plucky national team could grab gold at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships in Slovakia. Off the ice, the sudden springtime demise of the nation’s women’s professional league continued to reverberate.

Meanwhile, at the center of the hockey world, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman convened a press conference to deliver his annual state-of-the-game address. The fact that he was doing so from Boston, and that (once again) no Canadian-based team would be playing for hockey’s most coveted prize, the Stanley Cup, isn’t enough anymore to faze the country that thinks of hockey as a proprietary natural resource indivisible from the national soul, never mind how far the Cup might wander away from home.

Bettman spent much of his time on the podium lauding the successes of the corporation he guides. “While there are things that are always debatable in our game,” he said, “let’s first focus on some indisputable facts that detail why the NHL is in the strongest position in our history.” [1]

Bettman went on to extol hockey as the “greatest spectacle in sports” and the “remarkable” season the NHL had seen on ice. He cited soaring TV ratings, expansion to Seattle, exciting future ventures into Europe and China, and technological innovations that will bring player and puck-tracking into play as soon as next season. He spoke about the prevailing turbulence in women’s hockey, but only in passing. His assertion that the NHL features “the best pace of play in sports” may or may not have been primarily directed at those with both doubts and attention deficits. “We have the most and fastest action in the shortest period of time,” Bettman boasted. [2]

Speedy as it is, the NHL has also become in its one hundred years of existence such a mighty mass that at times it can seem to displace all other forms of the game that don’t quite mesh with the massive workings of the league’s corporate machinery. For all the excitement that the league generates with its hockey, despite its many good-faith efforts to grow and diversify the game, the NHL hockey is not — and should never be — the only game in town.

Authors Stephen Hardy and Andrew C. Holman don’t command TV cameras the way Gary Bettman can, and their important new book, Hockey: A Global History, won’t be broadcast as widely as the commissioner’s messaging. It’s too bad: their expansive and very detailed study of hockey’s evolution, structures, and culture is required reading, the new standard text when it comes to understanding how the sport got from the far-off historical there to where it is today.

The library of the sport’s literature is an extensive one, but there’s nothing in it like their Hockey: A Global History. Hardy is an emeritus professor of kinesiology and history at the University of New Hampshire; Holman is a professor of history at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. It’s not that the game hasn’t been studied with serious and scholarly intent before. A stack of the most interesting and edifying books on the game’s rise and development would necessarily include, for example, On The Origin of Hockey (2014) by Carl Gidén, Patrick Houda, and Jean-Patrice Martel; Craig Bowlsby’s 1913: The Year They Invented The Future of Hockey (2013); and Deceptions and Doublecross: How The NHL Conquered Hockey (2002), by Morey Holzman and Joseph Nieforth.

For insight into hockey’s character and culture (including its many deficiencies and outright failings) you’d add Hockey Night in Canada: Sport, Identities, and Cultural Politics (1993), by Richard Gruneau and David Whitson; The Death of Hockey (1972) by Bruce Kidd and John Macfarlane; and the 2018 scholarly anthology, Hockey: Challenging Canada’s Game, edited by Jenny Ellison and Jennifer Anderson.

As for general histories, books like Michael McKinley’s Putting A Roof on Winter: Hockey’s Rise from Sport Spectacle (2000) stick close to hockey’s perceived home ice, which is to say Canada and the northeastern United States. No previous single-volume study has ranged so broadly as Hockey: A Global History nor dug so deeply into the details, and I don’t know of a precedent, either, for the quality of Hardy and Holman’s analysis as they make their way through hockey history, cracking open orthodoxies as they go, and briskly reordering many of what we have come to think of as the game’s immutable verities. It all makes for a brisk and fluid narrative, too: on top of everything else, Hardy and Holman unpack an awfully good story.

The crux of it all is in the title, three words in. Referencing Gruneau and Whitson, Hardy and Holman acknowledge that Canada and the Canadian experience is at the center of any discussion of hockey. “The problem,” the former pair wrote in Hockey Night in Canada, “arises when Canadians’ appreciation for hockey is mistaken for ‘nature’ rather than something that is socially and culturally produced.”

“We try,” note Hardy and Holman, “to move hockey history beyond the limits of one national bias.” Unbounded, they also succeed in their effort to transcend “dimensions beyond nationhood, particularly along lines of class, gender, and race.”

They also make a key shift in considering the game’s early evolutionary momentum. The emphasis of much previous historiographical debate has been fixed on determining hockey’s “birthplace” rather than on discussing migration patterns. As Hardy and Holman write, “birth details would matter little (beyond antiquarian interest) if the game and its followers, players, and promoters had never grown, if they had never become fruitful and multiplied.”

If there is a consistent tone to the narrative here, it’s set early on as the authors remind readers (while discouraging any romanticists who might have strayed by) that there was never a golden age of hockey, a prelapsarian frozen garden where once the game was purely, innocently yet to be spoiled. Hockey, like most human endeavours, is an imperfect, in-process, not always entirely progressive affair that its various stakeholders — players, coaches, owners, members of the media, fans — continue to make up as they go along.

And it was ever thus. The game, to start, was many games, and they proliferated spontaneously wherever people picked up sticks to knock balls—or bungs or, eventually, pucks. They note that the first skates were fashioned, probably, from animal bone, with practical purpose: in northern climes, they were developed for travel and transport before they were put to use in fun and game. Many of the proto-hockeys that were played in the wintry past were, of course, informal, without consistent rules or equipment or chroniclers. That they went largely unrecorded isn’t so surprising — as historian Craig Bowlsby has pointed out, 200 years ago, nobody was assiduously annotating the history of snowball fights, either. Continue reading

pucksplainer

Sticks On The Ice: The University of Toronto’s Varsity Ladies’ Hockey Team lines up in the winter of 1910 on the rink at Annesley Hall, near the intersection of Charles Street West and Queen’s Park. Not recorded is the name of the man in the hat — a coach, no doubt. The original captioning identifies the players as (from left to right) Miss McDonald, Miss Barry, Miss Hunter, Miss Bonnar, Miss Sutherland, Miss Fairburn, and Miss Murphy. Minnie Louise Barry we can more fully name — the photograph belongs to an album of hers dating to her undergraduate years as an arts student at the U of T’s University College. Some further quarrying tells us that Barry played point, one of the two defensive positions in the old seven-player system, alongside Miss Fairburn at cover-point. This team picture from that same winter shows the full line-up — along with the man in the hat, lurking in back, with a hatted friend or relation …or co-coach?

 

(Top Image: University of Toronto Archives Image Bank)

 

calling time

Stick Tap: Hayley Wickenheiser announced her hockey retirement today at the age of 38. A five-time Olympic medallist (four golds and a silver), the Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, native is the all-time leading scorer in Canadian women’s hockey. CBC has an overview of her outstanding opening career here. As Wickenheiser said today in bidding her farewell, she’s focussed now on the one that comes next, which has her heading to medical school.

(Top Image: Dave Holland, 2014, Simon Fraser University Communications)

new order

e010752920-v6-1

Medal Count: Cassie Campbell-Pascall was one of 113 new appointments to the Order of Canada this Thursday past. The former left winger who captained Canada’s national women’s team to Olympic gold medals in 2002 and 2006 also skated to six World Championships with the team. Now 43, she works as a reporter for Sportsnet and Hockey Night in Canada. In 2012, Campbell-Pascall was named to the Order of Hockey in Canada. (Photo: Bryan Adams, Library and Archives Canada, R11443-84, e010752920)

 

 

 

 

a fine argument on the ice

The Vancouver Ladies’ Hockey Team line up on the steps of the Denman Street Arena circa 1914. Back row, left to right, they are Connie Smith (right wing), Betty Hinds (rover), Pete Muldoon (manager), Nellie Haddon (centre), Miss Matheson (left wing). From, from left: Mrs. French (coverpoint), Mrs. L.N. McKechnie (goal), Mrs. Percival (point). (Photo: Stuart Thomson, City of Vancouver Archives)

The Vancouver Ladies’ Hockey Team line up on the steps of the Denman Street Arena circa 1914. Back row, left to right (as originally captioned) they are Connie Smith (right wing), Betty Hinds (rover), Pete Muldoon (manager), Nellie Haddon (centre), Miss Matheson (left wing). From, from left: Mrs. French (coverpoint), Mrs. L.N. McKechnie (goal), Mrs. Percival (point). (Photo: Stuart Thomson, City of Vancouver Archives)

“Mr. Muldoon is of the opinion that there is sufficient class among the Vancouver ladies to give either of the opposition teams a fine argument on the ice.” This was February of 1914, and Pete Muldoon was looking to raise a women’s team to challenge those already on skates in coastal British Columbia. Come one, come all, the word went out: first practice will be Monday the 9th at the Denman Street Arena between 11 and noon.

In 1911, hockey’s famous Patricks — father Joseph along with sons Frank And Lester — put the family’s lumber fortune into building rinks and launching professional hockey in British Columbia. When the Pacific Coast Hockey Association got going in January of 1912 it counted in its ranks players whose names today among the most famous in the annals of the game, Cyclone Taylor, Newsy Lalonde, and the Patrick brothers among them.

Pete Muldoon played for Frank Patrick’s Vancouver Millionaires, but it was as a manager and coach that he’d make his name. His PCHA Seattle Metropolitans played three times for the Stanley Cup, winning it in 1917. When Major Frederic McLaughlin bought the Portland Rosebuds and turned them into the NHL’s Chicago Black Hawks, Muldoon was their first coach. He resigned after a year, unless he was fired — either way, the legend goes that he cast the curse that kept the Hawks out of first place in the NHL for 41 years when the spell was lifted/broken/proved to be bunkum.

Back to 1914. As Wayne Norton’s Women On Ice: The Early Years of Women’s Hockey in Western Canada (2009) explains, when teams from New Westminster and Victoria played each other in Victoria that February, Muldoon hatched the idea that a team of women he’d put together in Vancouver would then challenge the winner for the B.C. championship. Never mind that there were other women’s teams playing elsewhere in the province — Muldoon and company conveniently forgot about them.

Following that first practice at the Denman Street Arena and several more besides, the team made its debut on February 20. Wearing the colours of the PCHA Millionaires and playing seven-a-side, they beat Victoria 1-0 on a goal by Betty Hinds. The newspaper coverage was as casually and tiresomely sexist as you might expect, with the Vancouver Daily World reporting that

The game was exciting from start to finish and it was not all “butter fingers” playing at that. Some of the hockey exhibited by one or two of the local ladies and some of the Victoria ladies would certainly make many hockey players take notice.

Victoria and New Westminster had previously tied their game, so that when the Millionaires travelled to play the final game in the series, a win by New Westminster gave them the (somewhat suspect) title of provincial champions.

 

canadian hockey girl, 1904

benchhkyThe British Library’s Colonial Copyright Collection is a remarkable archive of more than 4,000 images depicting the period 1895 through 1924. Digitized over the past several years, it provides a fascinating glimpse into the country’s homesteading, bear-wrestling, train-crashing past — with a few hockey asides. Phil Hatfield, the Library’s Canadian curator, has a good overview of the project here. Above, photographer William Elisha Maw’s 1904 winter idyll, “Benched,” from his “Canadian Hockey Girl” series.

[Photo: Canadian Copyright Collection, British Library, number 15498]