Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Who Makes a Better Referee?

NHL players, coaches and team executives who firmly support fighting in the game will tell you the enforcer role is needed to police the game.  The game is too fast and the on-ice officials can’t catch all the cheap shots so the players need to take matters into their own fists.  So who is better at controlling the game, the NHL referee or the team enforcer?

First a little background on our alternatives:

NHL referees have likely spent a decade or more working through various levels of hockey in order to get to the big league.  In most cases they have played some competitive hockey, are excellent skaters and have officiated thousands of games as part of their experience.   Mandatory courses were required in order for them to be promoted into the next level and they would have been regularly tested for fitness and knowledge.  A top NHL referee can make over $200,000 per year.

NHL enforcers have also spent most of their life on skates.   Some would have been big stars in their local youth hockey league while others were just big.  At some point in junior hockey it’s likely a coach took them aside and told them that their only route to professional hockey was to start playing tough and go after the other team’s big guys who were also not going to make it on talent.   There are no courses for this role – it’s all on the job training where knowledge is hit and miss.  Literally.   Enforcers can make anywhere from $500,000 to over $1,000,000, as long as they stay at the NHL level.

In an arena that is 200 feet by 85 feet, proximity to the action is important in order to stay on top of penalties.

There are two NHL refs in every game.  They spend all of their time on the ice skating hard and ensuring they are within a few yards of the play.   All of their years of officiating and training have taught them where to position themselves and how to avoid interfering with the play.   They don’t catch everything; the play is sometimes too fast and difficult to predict where action will develop.  They sometimes let small infractions slip in order to “let em play” but in general most infractions are punished and players are immediately dispatched to the penalty box.  

The enforcer may be sitting in the press box on quite a few nights, with a great view from 100 feet above the ice surface.  From here they can see all the action and clearly make a note of any cheap shots from opponents, and make a note to seek revenge at their next meeting.  Which could be months away.   If they happen to be on the bench for that game then it’s likely they noticed that cheap shot even though they may be over 100 feet from the action.   There’s a chance that they might get on the ice at some point with the guilty opponent and provide some timely revenge.  As long as the Coach says it’s OK, or the game isn’t close, or they get a chance at another shift.   Enforcers aren’t looking for any infraction as they are very focused.  They are particularly interested in cheap shots on any teammate or perhaps a hard-clean hit on a star player or maybe the other team’s enforcer is on the ice stirring shit up.   Policing is also required when his team is down by 3 or 4 goals late in the game and the coach puts the enforcer on the ice to “send a message”.

Each of our alternatives follow rules that are designed to control the game.

The NHL ref follows the official rule book.  They have been trained on it, tested on it in simulations and game situations and debriefed countless times during a season.  The league subjects them to video reviews and evaluations to determine their pay scale and if they get to ref the big games.   They are motivated to get it right, both for their careers and for the integrity of the game.

Enforcers have “the code”.   This is a set of rules or guidelines that are not written down.  Perhaps they read a little bit about it in Ross Bernstein’s book where, during the last lock-out, he interviewed some out-of-work enforcers about situations where they beat up people.  But in general “the code” is adapted to fit the particular situation as determined by the level of animosity between the teams and if the enforcer is feeling threatened by the potential for being sent down to the minors.   Enforcers are evaluated by online fans who vote on every fight to determine the winner, no matter what infraction they were in the process of policing.

Controlling a game requires a level head and a detached approach the action on the ice.

Despite the conspiracy theories, NHL referees don’t have a stake in the eventual outcome of a game or a playoff series.   They are trained and tested on how well they control the game with the end result being exciting, fast-paced action where the ref is almost invisible.   They call the game with consistency and fairness.

Enforcers approach every situation as though they have been insulted or that an opponent must pay for some perceived wrong.  They either charge the offending player with a blitz attack or they harass them with the “wanna go” refrain for an entire shift.   The end result of their effort is an ugly display that interrupts the hockey game.  Invisible is not in their vocabulary.   Enforcers are emotional and heavily biased.

Choosing the proper alternative above should be common sense but I would guess that it depends on your viewpoint.  If you are a hockey fan then you watch the game for the skill, the fast pace, the hard hitting and the excitement of the fastest and toughest sport in existence.   However, like a lot of NHL GMs, coaches and players, you may subscribe to the myths and perceptions about why fighting is necessary and like to watch grown men punch each other in the face.   You either love the game for what it could be or you love the game for what it shouldn’t be.

1 comment:

  1. This is an essential point. If the other team is taking advantage of your stars, that's a failing of refereeing, since it's the refs' jobs to penalize that sort of thing. If you think the refs are letting too much go, you bring it to the league. Why is vigilante justice something to be admired in hockey?