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Do you want more consistency with hockey officiating? So do I. But let's not pretend it's simply a matter of hiring "better" officials. It starts with an understanding across the board between coaches, players, club management and the officials. They must ALL be the same page with the same concept of fairness and interpretation of the rules. The rules must also be rewritten for greater clarity.
These agreed-upon standards must then be carried by the conduits of information within the game, filter into the press and, finally, reach the fans.
Is that realistic? Probably not. But that's what it would take.
Absolute consistency is impossible to attain. However, that doesn't mean we should ever stop striving for it. In reality, the greatest consistency an official can have is to consistently be himself. Every year at training camp, we all come out with an upbeat frame of mind. Then the games start and we use our judgment for the first time. We promptly go back to being hated again. It's just how it goes.
A hockey official is like a mailman. As the mailman, I delivered the rules as I was informed and instructed to do. That included some joke rules that I hated, such as the toe- in-the- crease rule for disallowed goals, the accidental puck-over-the-glass delay of game penalty (then for goalies only, now for all defensive players) and the attempt-to-spear double minor.
The reality of our profession is that we have a shortage of qualified officials. I sound this alarm often, I realize, but it's true. I would love to see more former players and promising young athletes in general seek officiating training but it is an uphill struggle. If someone has the tools and the genuine desire to learn and improve, someone can be taught to be an official just as the likes of John McCauley, John Ashley and Frank Udvari taught me.
Realistically, though, the pool of officials is just like the pool of players and the pool of the workforce in any profession you can name: there are a few standout stars, lots of average or up-and-down ones who require conscientious supervision and good teammates to succeed, and a few who need to be replaced. Just as not every NHL hockey line is going to be a trio of all-stars and not every baseball lineup is going to have Yastrzemski, Fisk and Lynn at bat every inning, not every game in the league can have the cream-of-the-crop officials.
Keeping that in mind, as supervisors and league directors, we all have a part in bringing the middle grade of officials closer to the top. That is partially done by consistent coaching and clear directives. Too often, the NHL and other leagues send out the officiating equivalent of Vic Stasiuk's infamous demand of his players to "check but don't check" or "challenge but don't challenge" that left the rank-and-file scratching their heads as to what was expected of them. Like me or hate me, but if you officiate for me, you can be damn sure you'll know where I want you positioned and how I think various situations should be handled.
From the NHL on down, we also need to critique the Rule Book and be honest in identifying where the rules are written in a clumsy, ambiguous or even contradictory and counter-intuitive way. Before we pass new rules or significantly change rules -- and no sport tinkers with its rules more than hockey does -- we need to think through what all of the possible consequences will be. Officials deserve (and need) a seat at the table when it comes to the Rule Book because we are the ones who must understand and enforce it.
Does all of this sound like a lot of work? It certainly is. But if we are ever going to make any genuine progress toward "more consistent officiating" we all need to be honest, pragmatic, forward-thinking (rather than reactive) and cooperative. Those traits are often in short supply. Where can we find such men (and women)? It's much needed. But, to paraphrase, the Beatles,
I'd love to see the plan but 'til then we're all doing what we can.
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 serves as director of hockey officiating for the ECAC at both the Division 1 and Division 3 levels.
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.