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Austin Murphy
May 16, 1988
When officials refused to work a Devils-Bruins playoff game, it was amateur hour in the NHL
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May 16, 1988

Theater Of The Absurd

When officials refused to work a Devils-Bruins playoff game, it was amateur hour in the NHL

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Game time came and went. Ziegler's whereabouts remained a mystery. So it was left to William W. Wirtz, president of the Chicago Blackhawks and chairman of the NHL's Board of Governors, to instruct McCauley by telephone to make certain that the game was played, regardless of who officiated. McCauley hastily gathered the replacement crew. McInnis, who would referee, borrowed New Jersey forward Aaron Broten's spare skates, while Sullivan and Godleski, the linesmen, wore yellow practice jerseys.

This unseemly chain of events was all but inevitable given the NHL's wont to clam up when its dignity is bruised. Koharski refused to comment after Friday's game. League spokesman Gary Meagher would only say that Koharski would report to O'Neill that night. On Sunday, O'Neill announced in a formal release that Schoenfeld was suspended for verbal assault and for blocking Koharski's exit. The question of whether he pushed Koharski would be decided later. O'Neill was unavailable to discuss his ruling.

Lamoriello's determination to get O'Neill's decision overturned will not endear him to his NHL brethren. How could the Devils disobey an official NHL ruling? Should Ziegler have interceded, as Peter Ueberroth did when baseball's umpires struck before the 1984 World Series?

That brought up the most incendiary question of all: Where was Ziegler? Had O'Neill spoken with Ziegler before suspending Schoenfeld? "I can't say," said Meagher. "He always has in the past." Ziegler was rumored to be in Bermuda, Detroit, London and Moscow—or aboard a Concorde. Everywhere except New Jersey.

Schoenfeld's punishment came unusually quickly and was much harsher than had been expected, considering standard NHL procedures. It seemed clear that the league did not want to appear to be a patsy in comparison with baseball, whose A. Bartlett Giamatti, the National League president, last week suspended Pete Rose for 30 days for shoving an umpire.

"I didn't see what Pete Rose did," said Schoenfeld on Saturday. "I know what I didn't do." He added that he felt "exonerated" by the tape of the incident. He thinks the Devils have had an undeserved reputation for pugilism among officials since their penalty-marred series with the Washington Capitals in the previous round of the playoffs.

Before O'Neill's bombshell announcement, Schoenfeld said, "I will be shocked if I miss any coaching." Certain he would not be disciplined, he said, "I've seen coaches and G.M.'s chase refs off the ice, wait for them outside the referees' room and chase them out of the arena. If I'm going to be disciplined here, there is a gross inconsistency."

Indeed, when Los Angeles Kings coach Larry Regan punched referee Bruce Hood in the face in 1968, Clarence Campbell, the NHL president at the time, fined him $1,000; Regan was not suspended.

"Consistency is the issue here," said Schoenfeld, correctly noting that officiating in the postseason has been anything but. Before the playoffs, coaches were briefed by officials on exactly what would be called. "If we're told something is going to be called, we'll pass that on to our players," said Schoenfeld. "If the game won't be consistently called, I don't want to be told it will be."

Neither team could complain very much about the job the substitute officials did on Sunday night. O.K., they almost lost control of the game in the second period, when three fights broke out simultaneously. They also missed a couple of dozen offsides, and McInnis pretty much put his whistle away in the third period. But as Boston general manager Harry Sinden said, "The margin between officials we plucked out of the stands and officials we pay a great deal of money to was incredibly minimal."

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