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- An inside look at how officiating changes in the playoffs - The Athletic
- By Katie Strang Apr 24, 2019
- Reached at his home in Florida on Wednesday morning, retired NHL referee Kerry Fraser hadn’t yet seen the most controversial call of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs — the third-period five-minute major assessed to Cody Eakin that changed the complexion of Tuesday’s Game 7 between the Golden Knights and Sharks and was a source of supreme controversy.
- When Fraser called back 10 minutes later after reviewing the play, all he initially offered up was one word:
- Fraser had the play freeze-framed and pointed out all the elements that converged to make this situation a highly unusual one. The call, a cross-checking major on Vegas’ Eakin against San Jose’s Joe Pavelski, was made after a clean faceoff win by Pavelski, where the linesman’s attention was diverted away from the two players. Pavelski, off balance first from a post-faceoff shove in the chest from Eakin and then secondary contact from Vegas forward Paul Stastny, fell awkwardly to the ice and hit his head — hard. Fraser described it as an “unfortunate end to a hockey play that happens a bunch.”
- But this play wasn’t treated as such. Instead, a five-minute major and game misconduct to Eakin was assessed as Pavelski was tended to on the ice, and a 3-0 Knights lead quickly disappeared as a result of four quick goals on the ensuing Sharks’ power play. San Jose went on to win 5-4 in overtime to advance to Round 2.
- Reviewing the call brought Fraser back to another infamous and controversial officiating event back in 1993 – his own, when he missed a high stick from then-Los Angeles superstar Wayne Gretzky on Toronto’s Doug Gilmour in Game 6 of the Western Conference final – that will be forever seared in his memory. He imagines Tuesday’s officiating crew feels similar to how he felt in the aftermath of that game.
- “I’m sure they’re gonna feel like I am, sick in the pit of my stomach. We’ve all been there,” Fraser said. “I have the same feeling I had that night on the ice.”
- Fraser believes that Tuesday’s sequence of events could force the issue of adopting video review for major penalties — “it’s certainly a topic for debate around the general managers’ table when they go to draft and I’m certain it will be debated. Something as severe as a major penalty could very well be added to the review process.”
- But nothing can be done now to alter the outcome of Tuesday’s game, and the explanation of the call from series supervisor Don Van Massenhoven was conspicuously vague and left a lot to be desired, which is likely to only further stoke the level of vitriol and debate over this call.
- And while the level of blowback following this call is sure to be fierce (see: Jonathan Marchessault’s post-game comments), officiating has been a fierce topic of discussion throughout the first round of play. Both publicly and privately, there have been grumblings of missed calls, overreactive penalties, disallowed goals and the like. But if there’s one common theme among those who have been watching the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, it is the growing sense that one cannot predict precisely what to expect of the officiation in the postseason.
- That leaves coaches, players and team executives often wondering how games will be called, and forced to react on the fly to which sort of infractions are prioritized and which ones are let go.
- Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau recalls past postseason appearances where he’s had to inform his team that slashing was going to be a point of emphasis but cross-checking was not.
- “We’d tell (players) to be physical in front of the net, but not to get (opposing players) on the hands,” Boudreau said.
- Both coaches in a series have the chance to gripe to officials, usually via a series supervisor, and Boudreau says that ultimately becomes a bit of gamesmanship. That’s par for the course for the playoffs, but this postseason seems to be already marred by a much blurrier line of officiating.
- As one NHL team executive, whose team is not in the playoffs, weighed in: “I’m watching as a neutral observer. I don’t care who wins and I don’t get it.”
- One NHL coach felt similarly: “I feel like they go into every game trying not to make calls and then once they decide to make calls it gets one-sided and inconsistent.”
- With that in mind, we asked Fraser, a veteran referee of three decades before his retirement in 2010, to provide an inside look into how this works — to evaluate whether the standard of officiating really changes in the playoffs, and if so, why? (This interview, conducted in the midst of the first round, has been edited and condensed for clarity).
- Does the officiating change in the playoffs?
- Fraser: For sure it does, and so does the level of play. If you compare playoff hockey to a regular season game, it’s just light years different — the intensity. In a potential seven-game series there’s actually a hatred that develops that, through the intensity and level of competition. And you saw in this first (round), there were upsets and sweeps. The Presidents’ Trophy-winning team entered the playoffs — maybe they were overconfident, maybe they were tired from pressing to win that first (place) overall — but it’s a new season. You had John Tortorella’s team in Columbus that was highly motivated. They didn’t show the Tampa Bay Lightning any respect. They outworked them and as such they eliminated them in four (games).
- That kind of indicates to you the difference between playoffs and regular season hockey, and the way players approach it. So, that being said, the officiating, and I’d have to say unfortunately, the officiating changes somewhat as well. And that’s because, I believe, the pressure on the officials. They feel, whether subliminal or imposed, the old expectation historically … the comment: They’re letting them play. Let the players decide the outcome of the game. I absolutely hate those two comments.
- ‘Let them play’ in my estimation means let them break the rules, and it’s the team that can be more dominant, more physically dominant often times, through that intimidation and physicality of play, can end up winning (because of it). I love the physicality of the game. I love playoff hockey, but you still have to play within the rules. As a referee you should not allow a team (to get away with it). (If) they’re differently-coached or more physical, that’s all good, as long as they play within a standard that’s acceptable within the playing rules. Also, relative to player safety.
- What have you noticed about the officiating in this round?
- Fraser: I think it’s been fairly good with the exception of Game 2 of the Boston-Toronto series. I just thought it was ragged. The standard was ragged, it was loose. There were too many infractions that were let go. In a playoff game especially, I’ve always maintained there’s a heartbeat in a game, a pulse. The heartbeat can get going too fast, and it’s the referees’ job to bring the temperature of the game down. You have to have a feel for the game. Now with the two-referee system, sometimes the judgments from one end don’t match up with the other end. In Game 2 (of the BOS-TOR series), there was that leg check (a knee-on-knee hit by Boston’s Jake DeBrusk on Toronto’s Nazem Kadri) just towards the end of the second period. That one was let go. The temperature of the game started to escalate. There were infractions that were, if they occurred in a regular season game, would have been called but they weren’t, so therein there’s a difference. And then, as that game really started to heat up, the referees needed to impose themselves a little bit to bring that temperature down, and they didn’t. And the result was, towards the end of the game, the body check along the rail (on Toronto’s Patrick Marleau), and then Kadri decided he was going to retaliate and cross-check DeBrusk. And now he’s suspended for the series. …
- If the referees had’ve imposed a standard, if they had called the leg check when Kadri was down on the ice, — you know, he was obviously upset about it — we can always look at it in hindsight, but I’ve always maintained you have to, as a referee, control that temperature. Maintaining a standard that’s acceptable and knowing when and how to pull the reigns in on a game that’s starting to get out of control (is important). You want to finish that game and leave it in good stead.
- Can you tell me how it happens that the league or director of officiating will say this is one infraction we want to make a point of emphasis? Who determines and dictates that and how does it get done?
- Fraser: (That’s) between (NHL director of officiating) Stephen Walkom and Executive Vice President and (Director of Hockey Operations) Colin Campbell. You have a situation where there is a series supervisor every series — he stays with the series, he manages the series, he conducts meetings with the officials on game day and updates the officials coming in. The referees will change and it’s the series supervisor’s job to update officials, especially in the first round because everyone’s busy and there are games each night. In that meeting, there’s an update on previous games, you’ll have statistics presented to you, penalties (presented to you). The (Alex Ovechkin and Andrei Svechnikov fight) would be highlighted — linesmen might be instructed further to that: “Let’s get in a little more quickly.” At the end of that meeting, the officials are provided with a scouting report, if you will, and the bottom line is they have to prepare themselves. They have to referee the game with the info that’s handed to them.
- I listened and took it in, but at the end of the day, I prepared myself for the game that night because I was the guy that had to go on the ice and I had to manage that game. I could be aware of certain signs that were told to me but I had to feel that game. When I dropped the puck I didn’t want to overreact to the information that was provided to me. I wanted to allow the game to be played like a flower that’s opening up and depending on what the players presented, I would react in kind; I would react accordingly. Based on a standard that was acceptable and through experience that, as a referee, you certainly gain. Every game is different. It’s not like a cookie-cutter approach you take.
- You have to be able to react to whatever is presented to you. You have to feel it — the intensity, the emotion. I always felt there were times when I wanted games to be controlled, but on the edge, almost like controlled bedlam, because that’s the most exciting component of playoff hockey. I didn’t want to kill the game. I didn’t want to take it away from the players. But, on the other hand, I had to know when that game, through the emotion, through the intensity, through the specific challenge between two players, I had to take control of that and take the temperature down so players didn’t have to control things on their own, that vigilante kind of warfare. If I didn’t do my job, if I didn’t step up when I needed to, when the game needed me to, you’re gonna have a situation where players are gonna say ‘OK boys, he’s not doing it. I’m gonna take care of this.’ So if the players feel … the referees have put their whistles away, then it’s open season, because once that happens, where the feel from the players is the referee won’t call it, they’re gonna cheat as much as they can get away with.
- And when one infraction is let go, and in the referee’s psyche, he knows that, it’s like, ‘Oh man, I missed that.’ Now, one happens the other way and, in fairness, he’s almost compelled to say, ‘Oh man, I let that one ago. I can’t call this one. That’s not fair on the other team.’ And then, usually the second one is worse than the first one. Then the snowball starts to run down the hill, another infraction is committed that’s worse and then another one. That’s an awful position for a referee to be in, because the players recognize it very quickly and they take full advantage and then the official is wrestling within his mind, ‘How can I stop this? How can I put the brakes on, because once they’re let go, now do I impose myself with an infraction? But lesser than one I let go?’ And that’s that inconsistency.
- I’ve felt that. I’ve sensed that. And at a stoppage I’ve gone to both benches and to both coaches and said ‘OK boys, I’m done with this. You’re taking advantage of my generosity. I’m going to stop this with a penalty. Next time a scrum happens that I feel is over the top, I’m gonna pick one player that starts it, so I need you, coach, to bring some discipline to your team. In a scrum situation, when that whistle blows, your guys better stop. If there’s another scrum, I’m going to pick a guy — might be your guy, may be the other guy, so do us a favor and control it before I have to.’ And that puts the onus squarely on the players. You’re telling the coach in front of the players. They’re hearing it.
- One last thing to recognize…
- There has been, and there will be more next year, young officials coming into the playoffs who have never done it before. There are some newbies. And (the league has) incubated newer officials entering the game who haven’t worked in a one-referee system. Every high level below the NHL is implementing two- and three-referee system, so there’s a safety net there. There’s never been that one guy who has to run the game, who has to feel the temperature of the game and have it all on him. (Now) it’s a shared responsibility. With inexperienced referees coming in, with the level of intensity in the playoffs and with the lack of experience and lack of handling it on their own, whether they’re coming from the AHL or college or major junior levels, they miss an element of development they have to pick up.
- They have to get it through coaching, through working with a more veteran official, that official has to really help them and I can say guys like Kelly Sutherland and Wes McCauley, the guys who are standalone officials, they can take over a game if they have to, regardless of what their partners are doing, but they have to become mentors for less experienced partners in the playoffs. And I’m sure they are. Considering those individuals, their personalities and skill sets — they are terrific referees — they will assist their partner in sort of a mentoring and coaching kind of way.
- (Top photo: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
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