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As a new season begins, it's evident the game is changing. The players are younger, faster, smarter. Which means the Islanders, laughingstocks a decade ago (page 76) but now a dynasty (Scouting Reports, page 50), will triumph over younger, faster, smarter foes. In college hockey, source of the burgeoning NHL brainpower and manpower, they love James Patrick of No. 1 North Dakota (page 58). While nobody loves officials, knowing what makes them tick affords special insight into the sport.
"Officiating is a very unscientific profession."
In the beginning was the Rule Book. And it was ignored. There's no sense trying to figure out exactly when that serpent got into the garden; the National Hockey League has played under its own unwritten rules for years. Suffice it to say the viper's still around. "If we went straight by the book," says Wally Harris, who has refereed in the NHL for 18 years, "we could call a penalty against each team every minute of the game. One hundred and twenty penalties a night instead of the 12 we average now."
The result—painfully evident during last spring's Stanley Cup playoffs—is approximately 108 uncalled rules infractions in every game. A two-minute hooking penalty in the first period becomes a fine defensive play in the third period. An elbow in the chops on Wednesday night is interpreted as good, tough hockey on Saturday. A cross-check across the backbone is a penalty everywhere on the ice except in front of a player's defensive net, an area that Referee Kerry Fraser describes as "a war zone." Most baffling is why refs tend to allow the so-called superpests—Quebec's Dale Hunter, Edmonton's Ken Linseman, Philadelphia's Bobby Clarke, Montreal's Keith Acton, for example—to use their sticks in ways that would result in penalties to most other players.
"Ask a referee why he calls a penalty one time and then ignores the same offense the next, and you'll probably get a bench penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct," says one NHL coach. "There's no point trying to figure out a certain referee's system. He doesn't have any."
Consistency. My kingdom for consistency! "Every referee is different," says a Chicago player. "I can't remember whether this one allows holding an extra second longer, or what he calls hooking. It's frustrating. One guy will let me get away with something one night, and the next night I'll try the same thing and another guy will call me for it."
Pitiful, pitiful. It's not that players don't understand when they're breaking the rules. They just can't anticipate when they'll be penalized for it. In the playoffs, play is even rougher, especially in the waning minutes of a close game, when most referees close their eyes and throw away their whistles. Over the 1981-82 regular season, Harris called virtually the same number of penalties in all three periods: 234 in the first, 233 in the second and 243 in the third. But in the nine playoff games he worked, he assessed a total of 57 penalties in the first period, 49 in the second and 18 in the third.
"There's a lot of money at stake in a playoff game," says Harris, who was widely criticized for allowing the Vancouver Canucks to clutch, grab and otherwise interfere with the New York Islanders in the first game of the most recent Stanley Cup finals. "Behind the net, along the boards, you're going to get away with a little more, sure. It's not taking away a scoring opportunity."
"The referees feel that they don't want to figure in the outcome of the game," says Scotty Bowman, coach and general manager of the Buffalo Sabres. "They want to let the players decide it."
And decide it they do—vigilante style. "If you go into the third period and the score is close," says one player for the Los Angeles Kings, "you can haul somebody down and the referee won't call it. He doesn't want to be the difference in the game, but what ends up happening is, he is the difference."