Behind closed doors, QMJHL refs receive failing grades from coaches

·Mike Sanderson
Referee Olivier Gouin (L) signals a penalty during the 2015 Mastercard Memorial Cup. Gouin was one of the two QMJHL officials to work the Memorial Cup in 2015, and has graduated to working some AHL games this season at only 25 years old. (REUTERS / Mathieu Belanger)
Referee Olivier Gouin (L) signals a penalty during the 2015 Mastercard Memorial Cup. Gouin was one of the two QMJHL officials to work the Memorial Cup in 2015, and has graduated to working some AHL games this season at only 25 years old. (REUTERS / Mathieu Belanger)

Be it international sneers for ruining the ice surface or getting hit in the nether regions with a beer can for doing their job, the officials have had it tough in the QMJHL in 2015-16.

Making the right call can turn an already-hostile arena and one team completely against them, and don’t even think of making a wrong one.

According to coaches, they’ve been making a lot of the wrong calls this year.

The latest report, from F.-D. Rouleau at the Journal de Montreal, is scathing. A number of Q coaches ripped apart the officiating staff of the league, stating that the game is confusing with inconsistencies between games and between referees, and even the suspension system.

The coaches surveyed responded under anonymity. If they made themselves public they would surely get fined.

“I would give the officials a 9-out-of-10 some nights, and then a 2- or 3-out-of-10 on others,” one coach said. “It’s very unequal. Sometimes we have great referees and sometimes we have very bad ones.

“There are also a number of penalties that go uncalled but bring suspensions later on. It’s hard to follow.”

Another coach didn’t hold back with his criticisms of the state of the league’s officiating.

“They are atrocious,” he said. “They steal the show with their inconsistency. It’s a farce.”

The latest example is Cape Breton forward Pierre-Luc Dubois’s suspension for checking Saint John blueliner Luke Green into the boards from behind. While Dubois netted a two-game suspension, including Game 1 of the Screaming Eagles series against the Chicoutimi Saguenéens, the hit went unnoticed by the referees on the ice.

Changes in the game

Rouleau asserts that a good reason for the poor grades in the league officiating could have to do with the adding of a fourth official on the ice.

Putting a second referee on the ice means the league needed to hire extra officials to compensate, as every one of the league’s 814 games gradually went from having three officials to four, and referees have more in their job description to watch out for and adjudicate.

As a result, Rouleau explains, there are more officials who are officiating Q games than ever before, and they are less and less experienced; hired at least partly based on need and not merit.

Related to that, the NHL went from three to four officials several years back, and raided the various other leagues looking for qualified officials. Paired with adding a man in stripes on the ice for every game, a number of top ranked officials at the NHL level retired after long careers, leaving a pronounced gap between the experienced and veteran officials and their fresh-faced brethren.

That gap has been felt at the Q level as well – referees Francis Charron, Ghyslain Hebert and Jean Hebert are former Q officials who joined the NHL Officials Association in the last six years, with a number of other top officials pulling double duty of officiating in the Q and in other leagues.

Not to mention that a majority of the league’s officials also have full-time or flexible hour jobs elsewhere, and the hours of travel and quick thinking on the ice can wear an official down quickly.

That’s not to say that new officials can’t be good. The two referees representing the QMJHL at the 2015 Memorial Cup, Olivier Gouin and Jonathan Alarie, are 25 and 26 years old, respectively, and Gouin has already made the jump to the American Hockey League.

Danny McCourt, NHL officiating supervisor, says that you can compare officials to players.

“It’s impossible to have the top stars at every game,” McCourt said.

“Not all officials look at the game the same way. It’s a question of maturity. A rookie doesn’t have the same experience as a veteran.”

“Call the rulebook” – Durocher

Many players are unsure of the infractions and the punishment that could be handed out, according to another unnamed coach.

“What’s worrying is that everyone is picking up on it,” he said. “The players are totally confused [by what’s a penalty and what isn’t]. The officials have to be better and do their job.”

Mario Durocher, a Q veteran coach who has been behind the bench for 13 seasons as an assistant and head coach for six teams, has a solution to the problem.

“No matter the league, the referees should call everything by the rules and respect the rule book,” Durocher said. “If we want it to truly change, we have to call all the penalties that happen, and the league will adjust.”

The better question is if Durocher will stand by his opinion after his team receives a merited interference call in the final minute of the third period with his team down a goal, but on the whole, most teams, players, fans and even officials would agree with that sentiment.

How do you fix it?

So how do you fix the league’s officiating problem?

Calling the rulebook would be a start, but how would you institute the crackdown?

The stark contrast from the league’s rulebook and the way the game is actually played would lead to a pile of penalties in the early going, possibly turning off coaches and players and tuning out fans in the process.

Several coaches called for an external review committee, unaffiliated with the league, to do reviews on suspendable plays or even on the men in stripes in an unbiased fashion.

According to Rouleau, the league’s general managers and the league’s director of officiating, Richard Trottier, will be meeting at the league’s annual meeting in June, though, as Rouleau says, that could be a losing battle.

The other solution is just to acknowledge that this could be a dry period for officiating, and the quality of referees are only bound to go up from this point, as young officials gain experience and the systems in place work their magic.

The NHL has instituted recruitment camps and better contact between the NHL’s officiating camp and lower leagues, including liaisons like McCourt, hired in 2014 to oversee the NHL and also the CHL’s development of officials.

The league’s coaches have spoken. Will the complaints be dismissed as the usual kvetching about the officiating, or does it allude to a core issue within the league? That lies with Trottier, and is his and the league’s decision.

It’s clear the coaches are open to change, if the league is too.

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