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Black and White: The playoffs through the eyes of a former NHL referee

The chase for the Stanley Cup raises the stakes for the players. It’s the same for the men who officiate the games.

I refereed my first NHL playoff game on April 5, 1973, at the Montreal Forum. That night the Canadiens were hosting the Buffalo Sabres in the second game of their quarterfinal series.

By that point, I had spent three years in the NHL as a referee and done my time before that in the WHL, CHL and AHL to name a few leagues, but there is definitely something different about the NHL post-season.

I remember standing at the red line that night, and as Roger Doucet sang the anthems my knees were shaking so bad that I thought I was going to end up at the blueline by the time he was done.

Now don’t get me wrong, even with all the pressure and scrutiny involved, a playoff assignment is the one that every referee wants. But you don’t just get it handed to you. When playoff time arrives, the NHL wants the top referees working the games. It’s as simple as that. Just like it was for me, getting to the point where you get that call is a gradual process for all referees, and it’s a position that’s earned, based on the quality of your work and the experience you’ve gained.

In many ways, we’re not all that different than the players. You want to succeed in your job, and as a referee, success is based on the level of the assignments you’re given. If you’re selected for a playoff game, you’re being recognized for the quality of your work, and if you’re lucky enough to be chosen for a Stanley Cup final game, you’ve reached the top of the profession. Every player dreams of scoring the winning goal in overtime in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final. Well, the dream of those of us in the pinstriped sweater is to be the referee in that game – and speaking for all of us in the fraternity, we want it to be a great game.

The playoffs put additional pressures on everyone on the ice, including the officials. For the crew it’s all about the performance, and just like the players, a good showing has a beneficial impact on you, both professionally as well as in your wallet. And because of the high stakes, everything that happens on the ice takes on an added significance.

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Nowhere is this more apparent than in what I call the “one-minute penalty” or what most others refer to as a “marginal call.” Now obviously these types of calls can have an effect on a game in November, but when it comes to the playoffs they can be the difference between winning and losing, and ultimately between one team moving on and another heading home. As a result, you try to avoid having to ever make any of these types of calls in the playoffs because the repercussions are just too severe.

To a man, the players know the value of a power play, especially in the post-season, and they will try their hardest to get one for their team. Because of the circumstances, players will do desperate things to get me to raise my arm, and as the referee I have to be prepared to take a closer look before making that judgment. Give the players credit, they are always aware of the score, the situation and the importance of the moment, and they are trying to gain that “edge” that will help their team. On the flip side, those same players, especially when it comes down to crunch time, will do their best to try and avoid being the guy who takes the penalty and hurts their team.

At the same time, with all of the experience that you’ve gained prior to working a playoff game, you hope to have built up a certain rapport with the players, one based equally on composure and communication. First and foremost, you want to be fair to the players, and show them a level of respect, so that if you do have to call a penalty they realizeit was a good, quality infraction, and not a chintzy call. Trust me, players know when they’ve taken a penalty and deserve to spend some time in the box.

The other difference for officials between the regular season andplayoffs is the uncertainty involved. When I was the supervisor of officials, I would assign the first four games of each playoff series, because I knew those would be played. After that it can get a little dicier, but you have to be guided by the principle that you want the best officials working the most important games. For some it can be tough because their entire schedule is determined solely by what happens on the ice. A quick playoff series can mean an extra day or two at home with their family, a long one can mean the opposite.

People often refer to the playoff grind, but I’m not sure they are thinking of the officials as part of that. Unlike the players, who travel by charter plane, the officials fly commercial. Taking into account the uncertainty, the travel, and the fact the average referee skates over five miles a night (and it was closer to eight in the one-ref system) and you can understand the toll it takes. – with Todd Denault

During his officiating career, Bryan Lewis, 76, was the referee in more than 1,000 NHL games, including 30 in the playoffs (with assignments in the 1981, 1983, 1984 and 1985 Stanley Cup finals) and was the NHL’s director
of officiating from 1989 to 2000

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