Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Golden Age: When NHL Referees Mattered

By Artistry

In 1994, the NHL made an under-the-radar decision that no one really cared much about at the time. But it was a bad one. In fact, along with southern expansion and the ensuing 1994-95 lockout-shortened season, it signaled the end of hockey's golden age. Gary Bettman identified a group of men every hockey fan knew, and he took away their names. The league tried to make its referees anonymous and ended up sucking a significant amount of the personality out of the game. Former NHL celebrity ref Kerry Fraser explains in a 2011 TSN post:

The "name to number" change came in the season immediately following the NHL Officials Association labour strike in '94. The change was presented to us at training camp by Commissioner Bettman as the League's caring approach to reduce perusal insult and criticism directed at the officials from game spectators. While "vanilla" might be the flavor of choice, if reducing criticism was truly the intention (which none of us ever believed for New York minute) then it didn't work. It did provide anonymity for the new officials (even from players) but it also stripped most of their individuality.

Indeed. For hockey fans in the 80's and early 90's, the refs were part of the show. They were part of the fun. We would ask each other before a game, "Who's reffing tonight?" That mattered. And when any of these guys took the ice, we knew them immediately, and we reacted. The game was on. 

The disappearance of the Frasers, Koharskis, Stewarts, and Van Hellemonds is symptomatic of a larger problem. Read on...
If you watched the NHL from 1984-1994, you can't deny this truth. The league is just not as entertaining as it used to be. Scoring is down. Teams are over-coached. "Systems" dominate. Dan Bylsma wants his forwards to shoot the puck on an odd-man rush and try to create rebounds.  No AHL scoring legend is going to suddenly appear on the scene and create instant offense a la Jock Callander.

Jock Callander doesn't have enough YouTube hits. You can't fault teams for trying to get faster, be more efficient with the puck, or for becoming more and more advanced in the way they approach games. That's just evolution. But you know what? It's boring. Here's what Alexei Kovalev had to say this week to Josh Yohe:

There's more just kind of straightforward hockey (today). Not much skill compared to the old days. It's really kind of obvious. Sometimes you can predict what the players are going to do: He just skates forward, and (the fastest guys) are going to be in the league. In the old days, it was just skill. 

He may be bitter about his inability to keep pace, but Kovalev is right. There's probably no place for a Robbie Brown in today's NHL, and that's a shame.

I don't think we're going back those high-flying days of 5-goal games and windmill celebrations. We're not seeing another season where 110 points is only good for 13th in the league scoring race. It's a testament to how great a game hockey is that we love it no matter what form it takes.  But how hard would it be to give us back our villainous referees?  Come on. Wouldn't it be nice to know the name of the guy who let Sean Couturier get away with like 8 crosschecks to Geno Malkin's kidneys before throwing Malkin in the box for retaliating?

Who the hell are you?
I am not advocating blaming the refs for your team's misfortunes. But sometimes refs make mistakes, and it should be ok for them to be accountable. Can't we try to recapture some of the emotion that's been drained from an increasingly corporate league? Isn't more personality always better than less?

The Big Show
The Show I've Never Watched Except if it's on in a Bar
Let's just all get to know each other again. It'll be like old times.


  1. Great trip down Referee Lane.

    The switch from one to two referees has also sucked all individuality out of refereeing. When a call is made, we often have no idea which ref called it and even if we tried to keep track, it's hard to do it on TV. Announcers should start discussing who is calling what.

    The biggest problem with NHL refereeing is not necessarily the inconsistency from one game (or shift) to the next, although that's a huge problem. It's the mentality about how the "stars" are officiated.

    In the NBA, the thinking is, "We have to watch extra closely for fouls committed against stars. Because they're so good, the other team is probably going to have to foul them to slow them down. Let's make sure to call it."

    In the NHL, the thinking is, "The other team has no choice but to hook, slash, crosscheck and obstruct the stars. But how can you blame them? They're playing against stars. Tell the star to suck it up."

    The league loves romanticizing grit, but all it does in the process is elevate pests (old-Cooke, Avery, Lapierre, etc.) into stars. Taking liberties against stars has become a virtue, protected by a mentality that stars should suck it up and deal with it. Taking liberties against stars should be a penalty.

    1. You had a great analogy about how the NHL tends to elevate its pests. I think you said it would be like the NBA allowing some team's 12th man to run up and down the court flicking LeBron's balls with impunity. Brilliant illustration of hockey's backward thinking.

  2. What about Kelly Sutherland? I feel like he's the Scott Van Pelt, because he's the only person I could name as a ref. The rest are just a bunch of dudes in stripes.

  3. I think he's Scott Van pelt, because he is the only one I could name as a referee. The rest is just a group of handsome boy in the striped.

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