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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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Someday, Paul McInnis, Jim Sullivan and Vin Godleski will be able to tell their grandchildren they worked an NHL playoff game. Isn't that special? Paul, Jim and Vin were the replacement officials for Game 4 of the Wales Conference finals Sunday night, though considering what their presence did for the league's image, they might as well have been named Larry, Curly and Moe.

"Just when you thought you've seen everything in this league...." said Rick Middleton, the Boston Bruins' 14-year veteran, after the New Jersey Devils had defeated the Bruins 3-1 to even the best-of-seven series at two games apiece. "It's a shame."

A shame—and worse. The league made a laughingstock of a sold-out playoff game on U.S. and Canadian television, with one team two wins from competing for the league's precious—but now undeniably devalued—Stanley Cup. In fact, slapstick is what Game 4 became the moment the amateur officials took the ice at New Jersey's Meadowlands Arena for their warmup laps at 8:45 p.m., an hour after the puck was to have been dropped. The three—all very nice men who usually work as off-ice officials for the league—were told they would be handling the game at about 8 p.m., 10 minutes after NHL referee Dave Newell had pulled his crew off the ice in what amounted to a wildcat strike. Newell, who happens to be the president of the NHL Officials Association (NHLOA), acted in response to Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld's appearance behind the bench after he had been suspended by the league for his confrontation with referee Don Koharski following the Devils' 6-1 loss in Game 3 on Friday night.

Schoenfeld lashed out at—and, depending on whom you believe, did or did not shove—Koharski. He was irate over a late first-period call that left the Devils a man short for four minutes. Schoenfeld intercepted Koharski as the referee stepped off the ice. The conversation quickly got ugly. As Koharski walked down the runway toward his dressing room with Schoenfeld close behind, the referee appeared to stumble, his right skate straying off the indoor-outdoor carpet and onto the slick concrete. Koharski immediately accused Schoenfeld of having pushed him.

Koharski then shouted, "You're through! You'll never coach another game in this league!"

"You're crazy—you fell, you fat pig," replied Schoenfeld. "Have another doughnut!"

Moving quickly, apparently to appease the NHLOA, whose contract the NHL must renegotiate this summer, the league suspended Schoenfeld for Game 4 and possibly longer. Instead of flying from Montreal, where he is headquartered, to New Jersey to assemble those involved for a hearing on Saturday, NHL executive vice-president Brian O'Neill reviewed some of the evidence—Koharski's and Schoenfeld's accounts and eyewitness testimony but not, at least according to the Devils, the videotape of the incident—and made his decision. It was at this point that the league made its essential error: The NHL didn't give Schoenfeld and the Devils a chance to personally and fully present their version of what had occurred before it suspended Schoenfeld. Around noon on Sunday, O'Neill telephoned Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello with his verdict. Lamoriello wanted to appeal, but O'Neill told him that wasn't an option. O'Neill told Lamoriello that only NHL president John Ziegler could overturn the suspension. But Ziegler couldn't be located.

"We found the referee's report untrue," Lamoriello said. "Jim hadn't been given his due. Our rights give us due process."

Lamoriello spent four hours Sunday afternoon attempting to contact Ziegler, before finally deciding he "was getting nowhere." Lamoriello then set about obtaining a temporary restraining order to keep Schoenfeld behind the bench that night. Lawyers for the Devils located Judge J. F. Madden of the Superior Court of New Jersey, who granted the order.

The lawyers rushed to the arena and served that order to John McCauley, the NHL's supervisor of officials and the ranking member of the league hierarchy on the scene, just before game time. Schoenfeld would coach the Devils. As a gesture of solidarity with Koharski, Newell and linesmen Ray Scapinello and Gord Broseker took a hike.

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