Have you ever listened to a song and completely misheard some of the lyrics?
One of the most commonly mistaken song lines is from a Peter Gabriel song. He sings "Jeux Sans Frontieres" (French for Games Without Frontiers/Borders) but it commonly gets misheard by English-speaking listeners as "She's so popular."
Within the NHL, the hiring of officiating supervisors and the selection process for the Hall of Fame, the reality is sort of similar to this musical disparity.
As the top league in the world, NHL officiating should be "arbitres sans frontieres". It shouldn't matter if someone's first language is English or French or which side of the St. Lawrence -- or Atlantic Ocean -- someone was born. We've seen that happen in other areas of the sport, and it has bettered the game.
For American and Francophone officials, however, there is still very much a glass ceiling. There are still subtle limits on the upper mobility even of the (still) relatively few who even get into the officiating rank-and-file. For Europeans, even the front door is still shut, let alone the elevator into the executive and supervisory levels.
The other day, when I was watching Bill McCreary's induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame -- a deserved honor, by the way -- a thought occurred to me. There is not a single French Canadian referee or linesman enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Need a candidate? Here's one hell of a good one: longtime lineman Gerard Gauthier was one of the best I've ever seen. He belongs in the Hall of Fame. So does American-born retired linesman Kevin Collins.
Oh, and if you are wondering how many French-Canadian officiating supervisors there are currently in the NHL, it's the same number as the number of American ones: zero.
French-Canadian officials in the NHL also deal with another subtle form of bias. They often get faced with perceptions -- not by fellow officiating teammates, mind you -- that they have some sort of inherent favoritism for the Montreal Canadiens.
Last season during the playoffs, I cringed when I heard Hockey Night in Canada's Ron MacLean make comments questioning whether the NHL assigned francophone referee Francois St. Laurent to work Game Four of Tampa Bay's series in Montreal solely to send a message following the Francis Charron disallowed Tampa goal controversy that arose the previous game.
I immediately knew what would follow in the days to come. It was bound to instantly turn into something ugly that had nothing to do with hockey.
Ron made a mistake. He gets paid to talk, and he said what some people were (wrongly) thinking. Those who have beaten the drum the loudest are those with an agenda. On the one side of the fence, you have those who were actively looking for a fight so they go overboard with a PC rant about Canadian society. Then you have bigots on the other side who paint all francophones with the same brush.
Make this crystal clear: I want no part of that discussion. That is NOT the purpose of this blog. I won't wave anyone's flag here and I'm not a political spokesman. Those who habitually play their agenda-driven version of the "French card" -- on either side -- tend to be insufferable, closed-minded people.
I have no time for the ignorance of the rabble-rousers on either side.
What I am about to write comes from my heart as a longtime referee and supervisor. It is also coming from a born-and-bred Bostonian who played and lived in Quebec and currently works much of the time in Russia.
What I think MacLean was getting at last spring was that there would be a public perception -- not that he believed it himself -- that St. Laurent and Charron would have a pro-Habs slant, and the NHL would avoid criticism by assigning other officials.
Had this been a statement about a Toronto native referee in a Toronto game or a Massachusetts native in a Bruins game, it would not have sparked the same political furor, but it would have been the same sort of statement in spirit.
Here's the thing: Ron was dead wrong, and should have known better.
I think we need to educate every hockey fan, coach, player general manager and commentator worldwide to understand that Referees are ALWAYS neutral or they won't last in this game. Again, we need to think of officials as "Arbiters Without Borders."
Let's forget the French thing or someone's New England birthplace. Instead, let's go with "he's a good referee who might or might not have missed a call" depending on how one wishes to interpret the NHL's poorly-written rulebook. By the way, I helped train the referee in question when he first was breaking in. He works hard at it and is eager for self-improvement and that's all I could ask.
Ron MacLean, who is a certified referee and once worked an NHL preseason game, came to our NHL Training camp to go through all the stuff we do so he could talk intelligently about what referees do. I admired that and I wish more people involved in the game would do the same thing. They would get a whole different perspective on the job.
However, this is also the reason why I was disappointed in what Ron said about it. He should know full well that the ONLY team the officials care about supporting is the one in the stripes. They care about making the right calls; no more and no less.
Avoiding public criticism of officials should not be part of the equation. As I told Gary Bettman to his face when they took the name off my sweater, people will still know me and say what they want. Besides, when I signed the contract, I knew getting criticized was part of the job.
In a previous blog, I told the story of how Pat Burns once accused me of sticking it to the Bruins to prove, as a Boston native, that I would not favor the Boston team. It was patently untrue.
In another blog, I talked about the time I had a run-in with Claude Lemieux and coach Pierre Creamer accused me of being anti-francophone. Serge Savard and one of my dearest linesmen friends, a francophone named Romeo LeBlanc, stepped up for me.
In yet another blog, I told the story of how even one of my linesmen was afraid of people citing the so-called "Montreal factor" on a call I made that actually went against the Habs in their home building.
I'm not going to repeat those stories again -- read them for yourself -- but my point here is I know from a lot of personal experience what I'm talking about. It's embarrassingly uninformed to think this way about a ref's nationality or hometown influencing his calls.
To put this in further context, let's apply the same "logic" to a player's professionalism and motivation. Longtime NHL forward R.J. Umberger is a Pittsburgh native. If he turns a puck over in a playoff game against Pittsburgh and the Penguins score a goal, was it because it he was secretly pulling for the Penguins to win their playoff series against his team?
Of course not. That thought is laughable.
Well, so is the idea that a referee or linesman who works his way up to the NHL has an allegiance toward -- or a "bias" against -- a team because of his hometown or home province. That is not how we are wired.
Incidentally, the same thing goes on at all levels of hockey. Last season, I sent Jean-Yves Roy to St. Lawrence to officiate two games with Maine playing at SLU. There were people that raised eyebrows because J-Y went to Maine.
I said, "Yeah, and that was 20 years ago. He's reffing and that's the end of this conversation."
He did a fine job. I knew he would.
Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.
Today, Stewart is an officiating and league discipline consultant for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the ECAC.
The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials. Stewart also maintains a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.
Stewart's writings can also be found on HockeyBuzz.com every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. He is currently working with a co-author in writing an autobiography.