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"In the regular season, if you just touched Wayne Gretzky you would get a penalty," says another member of the Kings, who lost five of eight regular-season games to Edmonton—Gretzky's team—last year but upset the Oilers in the opening round of the playoffs. "That wasn't true in the playoffs, and it really helped us."
"We're all guilty of the same thing," says Frank Udvari, a supervisor of officials for the NHL who refereed for 16 years. "In the last five minutes of a game, we're too careful not to call the marginal penalty. If you do call a penalty, the players, the general managers, the coaches all tell you the same thing: How can you call a penalty at that time of the game? A lot of times, rightly or wrongly, you take the path of least resistance."
One of the few officials who eschew that path is Andy van Hellemond, widely regarded as the best referee in hockey. In the 1980 Stanley Cup finals he called a penalty in overtime against Philadelphia, and the Islanders scored on the ensuing power play to win the opening game on the Flyers' ice. How could he call a penalty in overtime? screamed the Flyers, never for an instant denying that a foul had been committed. With eight minutes to play in the seventh game of last year's postseason series between Boston and Quebec, van Hellemond called Bruin Forward Terry O'Reilly for charging. When Quebec scored on the ensuing power play, one of the Bruins told van Hellemond, "Now you owe us one." But van Hellemond didn't oblige, and Boston lost 2-1. With two seconds remaining, O'Reilly hit van Hellemond in the face during a fracas. O'Reilly is now serving a 10-game suspension. As a result of that incident, as well as one earlier in the season in which Philadelphia's Paul Holmgren punched van Hellemond in the chest, the NHL—at long last—passed a rule this summer that calls for an automatic 20-game suspension for any player who intentionally strikes an official.
"They ought to throw the rule book out," O'Reilly said last summer. "It's a joke. The games are called differently referee to referee, game to game, period to period, team to team and player to player. If you're ahead by two goals, they'll call something they won't [call] if you're one ahead. If it's late in the game, they won't call something they called earlier. I think the game could be so much better than it is."
Stop right there. The game could be better. The purpose here isn't to embarrass NHL referees, individually or as a group. They receive little enough credit for their work as it is, and have received zero backing from the league office and club officials. No other sport asks as much of its referees, criticizes them as openly or abuses them as physically. After the Jets lost to Miami in the opening week of the NFL season, Jet Coach Walt Michaels was asked about the 13 penalties his team had been assessed. Michaels stated that if his club continued to take stupid penalties, it would continue to lose. When a losing NHL coach is asked about the infractions called against his team, more often than not the interviewer gets treated to a brief history of the referee's family tree—bananas and all. There are no stupid penalties in hockey, only stupid calls.
"In no other sport are referees charged so much with the responsibility of who wins and loses," says Udvari. "That's why we're such a focal point for criticism. It's been ingrained in players for years and years."
NHL referees are a focal point—period. It often has been said that the best officiated games in any sport are the ones in which the referees go unnoticed. NHL officials are about as inconspicuous as hot air balloons. While the two linesmen skate back and forth as if they were being chased by a madman with a carving knife, the referee struts and frets his hour upon the stage, often antagonizing players and fans by his very demeanor. Says one NHL general manager about Referee Bob Myers, "He could be the top official, but he's a bit of a show-off, among other things. He thinks the people paid to see him referee. They didn't."
Yet the NHL brass seems to encourage such flamboyance. Just in case an irate fan doesn't know whom he's screaming at, the league has put the names of the officials on the backs of their jerseys, contrary to the practice in all other sports, which identify them by means of numbers. "We used to have numbers," says Scotty Morrison, the NHL's chief of officiating since 1964, "but it was always assumed that the referee with the lowest number was our top guy, and the fella with number 35 was a rookie. So we decided to identify them [by name], and the response was immediately favorable."
Hockey fans are more likely to recognize a Wally Harris or a Bruce Hood than they are the starting center of the visiting team. Indeed, in no other sport are spectators so conscious of the officials and their respective reputations. One of the first questions asked in the stands at any NHL game is, "Who's the ref?"
That's also a prime concern of all coaches. To know what the standard of officiating will be on a given night is vitally important, because a referee can alter a team's game plan and style of play. When the North Stars faced Chicago in last year's playoffs, Minnesota Coach Glen Sonmor drilled his team in hooking and holding techniques after noticing that the refs were allowing the Black Hawks to get away with flagrant hooking and holding in the series, which Chicago eventually won.