09/17/2014 02:43 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

Officiating Machines (or Back to Humans)

Thirty years ago, the rock band Queen released a song called 'Machines' (or 'Back to Humans'). The lyrics describe about how the technological age has begun to squeeze the humanity out of music and, furthermore, gradually desensitized people from the genuine feelings and emotions contained with the arts. It's all mechanical.

Well, there has been a similar evolution/devolution process with hockey officiating. In this age of cookie-cutter rules and faceless TV watchers with ever-increasing decision-making powers via video reviews, we are in danger of only having "robot" referees with no feel for the game and no comfort in themselves to use their judgment.

Listen, folks. Anybody can stick their arm in the air and blow a whistle to stop play or slow things down.

A great official knows how to allow the action to build and use his judgement to get the players to perform at their maximum, safely but fiercely. To allow the players to dance on the edge of the rules but not to step over the line is where we should WANT our officials to be able to operate comfortably.

In games around the world, from the NHL and KHL right on down, I see actions that should be ignored being called. It destroys the flow of the matches. The referees seem to be officiating out of fear because they seem to have been told by supervisors to call everything. I sincerely hope that was NOT their instruction.

I see too many slashes that aren't really slashes and with no real result... no loss of stick, no broken stick, no loss of puck possession. I see so many marginal hooks with the players that were the ones getting hooked still getting shots and passes off with zip on the puck. These plays should NOT be called penalties.

A referee should try to follow this script: There is the action, then the result... sometimes we need to allow the referee the patience to see the result from that action to help him decide if the act deserves a penalty. Skip marginal calls especially in center ice for the sake of sustained speed and action.

My observations and the letters I get from hockey people make me wonder how the players, coaches and fans are enjoying the games with so many marginal or phantom penalties called.

One of the most common problems I see among many hockey officials, especially inexperienced ones, is a tendency to officiate by fear. This can result in games either being over-officiated or under-officiated. Of course, neither end result is desirable.

In an over-officiated game, the arm goes up for every little love tap and every time a player gets felled by a clean body check in open ice or that rattles the boards. There are more "reputation" calls than there ought to be. The R2 referee (the one behind the play) might make a delayed call on something that was in direct sight of the R1 referee who was right on top of the play and elected to let play continue. A linesman might be too quick to toss someone out of the face-off circle for the slightest infraction by a teammate on the ice.

In an under-officiated game, the officials risk losing control because players and coaches catch on quickly that they can get away with just about whatever they please. There's more and more clutching and grabbing. Stickwork increases behind the play. So do the cheapshots after the whistles.

From a linesman standpoint, icing gets called, rather than being waved off, when the very same defenseman who just closed a 10-foot gap on a rush two minutes earlier suddenly starts moving like a giant tortoise while a puck he would otherwise have a chance to play creeps toward the icing line. The same linesman may spend 15 or more seconds trying to get everyone lined up properly in the face-off circle rather than dumping someone.

Either which way, it's bad for the game. In order to survive in this game, an official MUST learn how to make calls without fear. The official can't be afraid of the crowd, the coaches who are trying to get any advantage or players yelling at them for "screwing" their team because the previous two calls have also gone against their side. Likewise, they can't operate in fear of what their supervisors might think if they exercise their judgment and make a controversial call.

Ultimately, those who officiate out of fear end up cheating the game. The flow and quality of play go down the tubes when there are too many unnecessary whistles and endless special teams play at one extreme, or lots of diving and obstruction at the other extreme. Both over-officiating and under-officiating create more diving, because the diver is more likely to draw a phantom penalty in an over-officiated game and, in an under-officiated game, either is trying to embarrass the official (and embarrassing himself, too, I might add) or figures the worst thing that can happen is offsetting minors rather then being sent off alone.

Get the picture? Those who officiate by fear get exploited rather than commanding respect. The reality of hockey is that it is a game that is driven as much by human emotion as it is by the letter of the law. What's more, players and coaches are smart enough to detect a fearful official right away. They adjust fast.

Maybe you liked the way I refereed games during my active officiating career. Maybe you didn't. But one thing you have to concede either way is that I was someone who refereed with no trepidation whatsoever. I had confidence in my judgement and hockey sense, confidence in the skills of my officiating teammates and no fear of what players, coaches, fans, the media or league supervisors thought about my methods.

I was someone who was NEVER afraid to make the tough call. I also officiated the same way in the third period that I did in the first (I will talk about "swallowing the whistle" -- or more accurately, setting the bar too high early and then setting it too low late -- in a separate blog).

Tell you a quick little story: On Easter Sunday, 1995, I was working a game in Philadelphia between the Penguins and Flyers. The two teams were closely separated near the top of the Eastern Conference standings. This season was the start of the Flyers and Penguins both being good clubs at the same time (in the Flyers' mid-1970s to mid-1980s heyday, the Pens were usually a downtrodden club and when the Pens built their two early 1990s Stanley-Cup-winning teams, Philly was in the middle of a five-year stretch of missing the playoffs).

The Penguins were winning the game, 3-2, heading into the final minute of regulation. With 49 seconds left in the third period, Pittsburgh's Troy Murray violently boarded a Philadelphia player. It was a clear-cut major and a game misconduct.

With 20 ticks left on the clock, the Flyers' Mikael Renberg scored to tie the game at 3-3. Philadelphia remained on the power play. Just as regulation was about to expire, Pittsburgh's Ulf Samuelsson, who had already been guilty of one high-sticking infraction earlier in the third period, high-sticked Rod Brind'Amour; leaving him a bloody mess.

Again, the penalty was clear cut. This had to be another major penalty. As such the Flyers had a 5-on-3 power play for virtually the entire duration of overtime. At the 1:30 mark of overtime, a bandaged Brind'Amour scored on the power play to win the game for Philadelphia, 4-3.

As I left the ice, hockey reporter Al Morganti, who was working the game for ESPN, said, "There goes the most popular man in Pittsburgh on this Easter Sunday, referee Paul Stewart."

I probably should have kept walking, but I have an incurable impish streak in me. I stopped, turned to Al and said "Well, if I'm popular in Pittsburgh today, they are REALLY going to love me tomorrow night, because I'm working the game at the Igloo."

The next night in Pittsburgh, I stepped out on the ice shortly before the players for both sides came out. I hear the expected chorus of boos and catcalls. I turned around to look at my linesmen -- my buddy Pat Dapuzzo and fellow veteran official Pierre Racicot -- and realized my teammates were playing a little joke on me.

They let me step out on the ice all by myself!

I circled around the rink, soaking up the warm reception from the Penguins partisans. Still no fellow officials joining me. So I had to go around again for another round of kudos from the folks near the glass. Finally, the linesmen decided to grace me with their presence.

At any rate, no, I didn't mind taking heat from the fans in Pittsburgh that night. The two calls I'd made late in the previous game were absolutely the right ones and it was my responsibility to make them. No more and no less.

In my post-active career as an officiating supervisor and trainer, I have absolutely seen officials whom I can instantly tell are letting fear control them rather than confronting that fear by letting the game take shape and calling it accordingly.

I've seen situations where officiating teammates are more concerned about stepping on each other's toes than helping each other out. I've seen the rulebook misapplied. I've seen officials who let themselves get manipulated by a coach. I've seen ones who, like overaggressive patrolmen in a police department, are too concerned about any perception that they are not in full control and end up being the aggressor in stirring up needless heat with the benches and players (a behavior which also stems from fear, by the way).

The bottom line here is that everyone has fears. However, a good official is neither paralyzed by those fears nor does he overcompensate in denial of them. Recognize fear for what it is and then confront it by letting the game be your guide as well as the letter of the rule book.


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 every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. He is currently working with a co-author in writing an autobiography.