December 31, 2010
This past Wednesday's edition of "HBO 24/7" did a nice job demonstrating to many fans that referees aren't the egg-headed morons we often make them out to be.
This isn't a cry to stop yelling at them or anything - they knew what they were getting into when they became refs, and let's face it, if you're daft enough to go into that line of work, you deserve some abuse - but once in awhile it's nice to point out that they aren't the worst people on the planet.
In fact, when it comes down to it, most players would have a horrible confession to make: they actually like them. The relationship between players and refs is more like Sam Sheepdog and Ralph Wolf than Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner.
Fans can only judge referees on the hard evidence they see - that being the calls - and it pretty much ends there. That's totally fair. But a lot that goes on between the boards -- officiating a game is more than just periodically playing judge, and quality referees manage the flow of the game in a way that naturally forms relationships with the guys playing.
Good refs learn early on just how essential good communication is. Half the time when you see a coach pull a "HULK SMASH" routine on the bench it's a combination of the call, and a poor explanation. A ref that can make the coach understand his thought process will rarely eat as much rage as the ref who's glib or arrogant.
In my experience, it's that communication that works as one of the biggest factors in what separates an AHL ref from an ECHL from a college ref and so on.
As players try to make quick decisions, it's a huge help to hear a ref offer "I'm not gonna blow it down, play it," and "behind you" and "I'm taking the next guy who throws a punch to the penalty box."
If you catch most fans talking about refs in general, they'll offer that it's the "toughest job in sports" ( a cliché that gets completely brushed aside when they witness a missed hooking penalty on their team), and sure, it is hard. But the truth is, every game isn't a roller coaster.
We only focus on the refs when things go wrong (which makes sense, fans aren't supposed to even know they're there), but we tend not to notice that the majority of games go by without major incident. That allows for some fun ref/player interactions.
Ovechkin's HBO 24/7 "well, he probably have sensitive skin, no?" comment isn't exactly a rarity (though it was hilarious). Since you can't make a ref un-blow that whistle and take back his call, what else is a player like Ovie supposed to do in that situation? Yell?
You make jokes, keep the relationship moving along, and do your best to get the ref into a "you owe us one" mentality. Because of the frequency of the jokes in those interactions, you start to get a kick out of the guys in black and white. But after the game, nobody comments on them unless something goes wrong, so we often mislead each other about their role on the rink.
Refs are a part of the fraternity, not outside it as they're portrayed. These guys aren't like the faceless drones that reffed our video games growing up. Players see the same guys a handful of times a month, and relationships grow.
(For example, our parents used to take us swimming at Kerry Fraser's house. Secret: his hair is down, like duck feathers).
I was Facebook friends with the same dudes who'd be chucking me in the box and telling me to STFU the next night.
Refs get to know the players tendencies, players get to know the refs, and the game benefits from that give and take. You'd be surprised how often a pre-game speech includes a nugget like "Koharski's reffing tonight, you know he likes to put his whistle away and move the game along, so play them tight in the corners tonight," or the opposite.
Just like in every job, there are some unlikable souls, but the majority of them are solid dudes who love hockey, skate like the wind and know the game better than any of us.
They're better at staying out of the limelight than you think -- going unnoticed in a building with thousands of humans with their own opinions is no small feat, and a big reason why there's a mutual respect between them and the guys that play the game.
I loved the footage in the refs room we saw on HBO, because you know what?
They deserve those post-game beers.