Over the years, there have been numerous attempts by the game's powers that be to reduce the amount of criticism that officials get subjected to. You know what they say about where the road paved by good intentions often leads.
Toe in the crease, goalie interference, contact to the head, hitting from behind: All judgment calls taken off the plates of the referees and turned into cookie-cutter, across-the-board automatic rules. Names off the officials' sweaters, stick buckets on their heads even though they are not playing the game: Efforts to scrub, sanitize and remove any name or face recognition of the officials ala the NFL.
Oh, and heaven forbid an official actually looks like he enjoys his job out there on the ice. To steal a line from Monty Python's Life of Brian, "this calls for immediate discussion!"
The effort to reduce the criticism of officials has branched out in other directions as well: the investment in a fourth official on the ice, and conditioning becoming a tangible aspect of officiating (we owe Jim Schoenfeld, Koho, Dunkin' and Tim's for that). That isn't a bad thing, by the way. Not ALL change is for the worse.
I will cover all these individual topics in due time. For now, I want to talk about one of my least favorite rules in the game: the automatic delay of game penalties for goalies -- and now for skaters in the defensive zone -- who flip the puck over the glass.
Was it deliberate? Was it accidental? It makes no difference, according to our beloved and oh-so-wise guardians of the game.
The League has systematically taken away the judgment factor, allowing only the tiniest bit of wiggle room to determine whether the puck went directly over the glass or skimmed off the glass and then went over. The result is a lot of garbage penalties and, sometimes, games being turned on the sheer happenstance of a puck hopping on its edge at the wrong instant and getting chipped over the glass instead of going off the dasher or glass and out of the zone.
Listen, even before I signed my name on the contractual dotted line to become an official, I knew that getting criticized and hollered at were just part of the job. As for all the rule changes that take away the decision-making and individuality of officials, have they actually served to make games flow more smoothly? Do officials get criticized less nowadays? I think you know the answer.
Anyway, let's take a little step back in time here. In the 1980s, goalies like Ron Hextall and Tom Barrasso revolutionized the puck-handling aspect of the position. Apart from firing breakout passes ala defensemen, they also became adroit at flipping the puck over the glass to relieve pressure in the defensive zone. Other goalies learned how to follow suit.
As a result, in the late 1980s, the NHL and AHL adopted the automatic delay of game penalty for goalies shooting the puck over the glass. Before that, officials always had the discretion to call a delay of game minor if they felt it was intentional. The same thing later happened with removing the discretion to determine if a defensive player shot the puck over the glass deliberately. When it's done intentionally, it's usually pretty obvious.
I was a young referee at the time the goalie-related delay rule was implemented. I hated the rule from day one. I hated it as someone who had played the game. I hated it as someone with an old-school hockey mentality about hating to "gift wrap" a game on a ticky-tack call with the outcome in doubt.
Shortly after the implementation of the new rule, I was working an AHL game in Halifax along with linesmen Charlie Banfield and Al Stone. My supervisor, Lou Maschio, was also in the building that night.
The home team, the Nova Scotia Oilers, were coached by a guy named Larry Kish, a slick Persian bazaar salesman of a guy who also happened to be my own coach during the season I first broke into pro hockey with the Binghamton Dusters. The team's star player was high-scoring center Bruce Boudreau, now the coach of the Anaheim Ducks.
With the score tied in the game, the opposing team's goalie shot he puck over the glass. It was accidental, but clear cut. Here is the family-friendly version of the conversation that followed.
"Stewy!" Boudreau shouted in that distinctive voice of his. "That's a penalty! That's a penalty!"
"Penalty!" Kish yelled from the bench.
"Nope," I said. "Faceoff right circle."
Boudreau and Kish conferred with one another.
"Stewy won't call it," Boudreau said.
"What do you mean he won't he call it?!" Kish demanded. "Go tell that guy that it's a new rule and he HAS to call it."
The next day, there was a photo in the newspaper of Boudreau coming to talk to me. He had an incredulous, almost crazed look in his eye, and I looked like I had just broken the good news to him.
The expletives flew. Boudreau then tried one last time to convince me.
"Stewy, c'mon. You don't have any choice here. You have to call it!" he said.
"Not calling it," I said. "Faceoff right circle."
Nowadays, Boudreau and I can look back at this incident and laugh about it. He recounted the tale a few years ago at his AHL Hall of Fame induction in Worcester.
In retrospect, I had no right not to make the non-call. I was just young, headstrong and had a strong sense of, shall I say, artistic license, to go along with my old-school hockey beliefs. I am man enough to say I made the wrong decision here, because it was my job to enforce the rulebook and not toss out the ones I thought were bad rules.
From a personal standpoint, however, I still think to this day it's a terrible rule. You want a REAL automatic delay of game penalty? The race-to-the-disc, loose puck situations where a goalie comes way out of his net to beat an opposing forward to the puck and falls on top of the puck is a no-brainer delay of game. Puck shot over the glass should be a situation-by-situation judgment call.
By the way, that very same game where I got into it with Boudreau and Kish over the delay of game non-call turned out to be quite an enjoyable night in my career. Lou Maschio and I each put in one looney apiece and bought a pair of raffle tickets for the arena's 50-50 drawing.
In the third period, they pulled the winning ticket. We won $1,500! Lou was so excited that he nearly fell out of the pressbox, and he couldn't wait to share the news. He phoned down to public address announcer Pat Connolly at the penalty box. Needless to say, I was overjoyed as well.
That night, we went to the Upper Deck to celebrate. We killed off two five-pound lobsters, a bottle of champagne and some Schooner beers, talking and laughing the night away. Ah, but Banfield and Stone were too cheap to put their loonies into buying raffle tickets, so those guys missed out on shares of the loot and the celebration afterwards (hahaha!).
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 Eastern College Athletic Conference (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.