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Badgers and Buffoons

January 28, 2014, 8:28 AM ET [51 Comments]
Paul Stewart
Blogger •Former NHL Referee • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Follow Paul on Twitter: @paulstewart22

Yesterday on Twitter, someone asked me what I would do if there was a situation in which I knew I had missed a call. Would I reverse the call? Would I give a makeup call? How much would I say to the coaches of the two teams?

All officials miss calls just as all players occasionally turn the puck over, let in a bad goal or shoot wide of a gaping net. It's a human game and humans make mistakes. As an official, your number one objective should be to make the right call. Perfection, however, is impossible.

In past blogs, I have talked at length about the need for officials to gain acceptability with players and coaches and vice versa. One component of acceptability is to own up to a mistake rather than pretending nothing happened. Saying "It wasn't my best call" and letting others have their say within reason goes a long way toward moving forward in the aftermath.

No one feels worse about an officiating mistake than the official himself. From an official's standpoint, the duty is to make the right call. It's impossible to get every call correct, but just as a player should move forward after making mistake -- rather than letting the mistakes snowball -- an official has to have the mental toughness to get the next call right rather than dwelling on the missed call.

Acceptability is a two-way street. A coach who gains acceptability among officials will get more self-effacing explanations. For instance, the late Bob Johnson was a coach that had enormous acceptability among officials, including myself. Mike Milbury was one that did not.

I once refereed a Pittsburgh game in which I disallowed a Penguins goal. Before I even skated three strides away, I caught a glimpse of Bob on the bench. Just by the look on his face, I could tell that I missed the call.

Bob didn't holler at me. He didn't argue for a reversal. He simply said to me, "Stewy, you are a good referee but I think you'll see later on that this wasn't your best call."

That stuck with me to this very day. Part of the reason why Badger Bob commanded so much respect among everyone in the game -- officials as well as players and fellow coaches -- is that he could communicate a point very clearly without histrionics. Even more importantly, he was rarely wrong.

On the flip side of the coin, there was someone like Mike Milbury. It's not that Milbury is a dumb guy. He is just not as smart as he thinks he is. He believes he's stating a case but ends up coming off as a blowhard, a bully or a buffoon. His big mistake is to believe that yelling louder and being more verbally abusive than the next guy means he won the debate. He knows the game, but he didn't invent it and he doesn't really know much about what goes into the art of officiating.

Look, I've known Mike for many, many years. We are close in age and we're both natives of Massachusetts. We competed against each other at many different levels of the hockey ladder before I became a referee.

He deserves some credit where it's due. Milbury was a good NHL defenseman for many years on the Bruins, and broke into the league at a time when American players had to be significantly better at their jobs than Canadian counterparts to find a spot.

Milbury has always talked tough in a suit and tie. He also put up his share of penalty minutes as a player, but that part of his game was a charade. When things truly got heated on the ice, Mad Mike was inevitably the one picking up the gloves (and, ahem, shoes) and not the one dropping them. Many of his penalty minutes were racked up in 10s by carrying on when someone was strategically in between him and the guy he was trash talking and inciting to the point that the ref ditched Mike on a misconduct.

As a coach, Mike had no sense of tact or psychology. That included his dealings with officials as well as players.

One night when Milbury was coaching the Islanders, I refereed a game at Nassau Coliseum against the Sabres. In the waning seconds of the first period, Buffalo defenseman Garry Galley elbowed the Islanders' Zigmund Palffy. It happened out of my line of sight, so I missed the infraction. Milbury saw it from the bench, and immediately began to scream and curse. I let him slide. I called very few bench minors in my career.

That should have been the end of it. Milbury, however, just couldn't let it go.

As the officials came out for the start of the second period. Milbury was already out in front of the Islanders bench. He clutched a VHS tape -- remember, this was the 1990s -- waving it at me and demanding I watch it immediately.

Now, I don't know about Milbury, but I did not travel around with a VCR in my bag nor was I in the habit of bringing one from the dressing room onto the ice. Perhaps Mad Mike wasn't holding a tape of the Galley elbow. Maybe he'd just recorded "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" off a Ted Turner channel and he wanted it played on the Jumbotron.

That would have been less insane than thinking he was going to get a non-call from the previous period changed, especially with all the theatrics and hollering. He got the level of attention and explanation he deserved -- zero.

Not all of my interactions over the years with Milbury have been confrontational ones.

When Milbury was with the Islanders as general manager, we had a good discussion about coaching candidates. I told him that I thought Dave Poulin (then coaching Notre Dame) or Peter Laviolette (then a Bruins assistant coach) were both bright and well-organized hockey men who would do a good job if hired.

When he wants to act like a civilized human being, Milbury can be friendly and engaging.

Unfortunately, he has a knack for alienating people in the game with the things he says and does that go way over the line of being an intense competitor. Being opinionated, fiery and passionate is fine. What is not fine is mistreating other people in the game, showing a lack personal respect, and seeing no need to apologize or knowing when to just agree to disagree. One can't always have the last word.

Mike was quick to forgive himself without being forgiving of others or willingly owning up to being in the wrong. I don't think he even realized how hurtful he could be to others.

One time, I witnessed Milbury behave disgracefully toward a brother official of mine. After the fact, he came up to me smiling and suggested we go get a beer together. I said no, I wasn't interested.

"What's wrong?! Why not?!" he demanded, starting to get red in the face.

"Listen, Mike," I said. "When you go man up and apologize, I'll be happy to have a beer with you. We can be friends. Until then, just go your way and I'll go mine. Have a good night."

A coach like Pat Burns or Terry Crisp could get into a heated confrontation with an official, but had earned the acceptability for it to be forgotten. They earned that respect and when something was over and done, it was truly done. Mike never gained acceptability, and didn't understand why.


Recent Blogs by Paul Stewart

The Nameless and the Faceless

The Great One and Me

A Bostonian On the Ice in Davos

A Hole in the Replay Rules: The Safety Netting Goal

Dinosaurs, Giants and the Vancouver Pillow Fight

Rambunctious Fans and Rogue Zamboni Drivers


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, while also maintaining 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 is currently working with a co-author on an autobiography.
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