In a more perfect world, officiating would be identical from one game to the next. That, of course, is impossible in any sport. But NHL President John Ziegler doesn't even seem to be striving for a more perfect world. In a television interview during the '82 finals, he appeared to accept cavalierly the vagaries of NHL refereeing when he said, "A foul is a foul only if the referee decides it is, based on the flow of the game, based on how he sees it and his position of view. Wally [Harris], we know, is a little more lenient and lets the boys play a little more than perhaps a Ron Wicks does. But that's their standards. We don't clone robots."
No mention of what the rule book says is a foul. Nope. A foul is a foul only if the referee decides it is. And that was no slip of the tongue by Ziegler; he was speaking accurately for NHL coaches, players, general managers, the Board of Governors, even the referees. "The rule book is just a guide," says Wicks. "If you called the game by the book, you'd be the only guy left on the ice." Adds Harris, "Every play's a discretion call. That's the whole problem with hockey."
Small wonder the referee is open for criticism—indeed, oral and written assassination—during and after every game. Inexplicably, the NHL also permits all players—not just the team captain—to argue with referees during stoppage in play, and the league doesn't seem to object when general managers and coaches harass a referee between periods. So, the referee has been stripped of his only ally. Quick, we must find him another.
The NHL uses three officials. The referee calls penalties and rules on goals. The linesmen call offsides and icings, and break up fights. This year, for the first time, linesmen also will be able to stop play if they see a goal scored or a major infraction committed behind the referee's back. That's a good change. It came about as a result of a game last season between the Flyers and the Islanders in which Harris was the referee and Ron Asselstine was a linesman. The score was 1-1 with about seven minutes remaining when Philadelphia's Bob Hoffmeyer speared New York's Dave Langevin in the groin. Harris didn't see the infraction, but Asselstine did. As a linesman, however, Asselstine had to wait until play had stopped to tell the referee what had happened. A minute and a half of continuous action went by before a Flyer shot hit the goalpost and Billy Smith of the Islanders covered the puck. The Islanders immediately converged on Harris.
"Boy, did you miss one."
"I didn't see it."
Asselstine skated up. "Wally...."
"In a minute," Harris said, returning to the argument. "I tell you, [Denis] Potvin, if I had seen it I would've called it."
"I said in a minute!" Finally, Harris turned to his linesman. "All right. What do you want?"