Here are three ways to take the heat off the beleaguered referees
Two referees are better than one, or, in the words of one Eastern Conference general manager, "Let's just say two are half as bad." In the NHL's second season of phasing in a two-referee system, the added official has clearly helped do away with many of the cheap fouls that occur behind the play when a lone referee is following the puck. SI recently polled the league's general managers, and of 27 respondents, 20 backed the two-ref system, four opposed it, and three were uncommitted.
Yet criticism of officials this season has been as harsh as ever. After a Jan. 11 loss to the Flyers, for example, Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice speculated that "aliens came down and took over [referee Richard Trottier's] helmet." More measured condemnation of the zebras has come from coaches such as Roger Neilson of the Flyers, who said last month, "I'm sure they're doing the best they can, but you never know what you're getting."
There's the rub. What players and coaches want above all is consistency, something the NHL has undermined. Here are three changes that may smooth the ice.
1) Begin immediately to use two referees in every game. Each team will play 50 of its 82 regular-season games with two referees, up from 20 last season. The short-sighted plan to use two refs in some matches but not in others was doomed from the outset because it guarantees that officiating will be uneven from one game to the next. Says Maple Leafs defenseman Dmitry Yushkevich, "Sometimes you get a game with one ref, and if he's used to having another guy with him, he misses things."
2) Establish set pairs of referees. Just as baseball umpires work in teams, refs should buddy up. Partners would become familiar with one another's habits and develop a cohesive view of highly subjective circumstances. "Every ref sees the game differently," says Mighty Ducks winger Paul Kariya, "but we've got to push to the point where you know if you're hooking a guy in a certain situation, you're going to get called or you're not going to get called. Right now, we don't know that."
3) Stop changing the rules during the season. In February the league ordered referees to call goalie interference more stringently because netminders were frequently getting jostled in the crease. Midway through last season the league announced a crackdown on obstruction fouls. Both were noble mandates delivered at the wrong time. "It would be nice not having these memos thrown [our way] that say, 'O.K., we're going to do this now,' " says Devils captain Scott Stevens. "Let's set the rules and enforce them from the start of the season to the finish. That's all the players ask."
Bure Trade Revisited
A Declining Exchange Rate
The sexiest trade of the late 1990s occurred on Jan. 17 of last year, when the Canucks dealt superstar sniper Pavel Bure, defenseman Bret Hedican and minor leaguer Brad Ference to the Panthers for defenseman Ed Jovanovski, goalie Kevin Weekes, center Dave Gagner and minor leaguer Mike Brown. When members of the media and several NHL general managers said that Vancouver general manager Brian Burke had been taken, Burke shot back, calling Weekes, then 23, the Canucks' "goalie of the future" and saying that "the key to the deal" was Gagner, then 34. "Evaluate this trade a year from now and tell me what you think," Burke said.
Here goes: Bure had a league-best 42 goals through Sunday for the Southeast Division-leading Panthers. He has shifted the balance of power in the East and is the front-runner for the Hart Trophy. Hedican had five goals for Florida; Ference was in the minors. For Vancouver, the 23-year-old Jovanovski, the No. 1 pick in the 1994 draft, had only two goals, and his overall game hasn't improved as expected. In December, Weekes was sent to the Islanders for goalie Felix Potvin, who had gone 4-7-4-0 with the Canucks. Gagner retired last summer, and Brown was still in the minors. Burke didn't return calls seeking his reevaluation of the deal. As a kindness to Vancouver fans, we promise not to check in again on the trade next year.