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A Ref's Life: Dealing with coaches

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

“When dealing with a player or coach, I try to be empathetic, I say, ‘Listen, I know where you’re coming from, there was a call missed or whatever, I’d be pissed off at you, too, but this is the way it’s going to be and we have to go on from here.’ ” – NHL referee

Whether it’s head shots, the trapezoid rule or that hook you think was missed in the second period of a game in November, arguments about penalties rage throughout the hockey world from the highest level on down to the beginner stages.

And while these off-ice debates will carry on through an entire season and beyond, the in-game disagreements have to be dealt with and moved past immediately. It’s an important part of a referee’s job to be able to mediate, an underestimated skill that is challenged most nights on the NHL schedule.

Every coach in the NHL has his own reputation. He could be hard-nosed or passive, new-school or old-school, so a referee has to acknowledge who is on the bench and deal with his personality accordingly.

“Tom Renney, Paul Maurice and Randy Carlyle are probably three of the guys where, if there was a problem in a heated situation, I know I can go to those guys and diffuse it,” explained NHL referee Kelly Sutherland. “Where there are some guys where, if things are going crazy, it’s almost best to wait and let the situation cool down and get to them when they can actually start thinking.”

The old-school and new-school hockey divide is prevalent behind the benches. As Sutherland pointed out, both styles have their own way of deciphering every play and their own way of arguing and negotiating a call. Where an F-bomb might be lobbed back-and-forth with an old-school coach, the more new-school coaches tend to be “by the book” and don’t necessarily appreciate that style.

Not only that, but the guys who enjoy fire-wagon hockey will be able to appreciate the rough-house penalty calls – or non-calls – more easily.

“Randy (Carlyle) will understand the play where maybe two guys punch each other in the head or maybe you’ve missed something,” Sutherland said. “Whatever’s happened, you just go to him and say ‘Listen, that guy ran over the goalie and got punched in the head – that’s pretty fair.’ Where some guys would say ‘How can that not be a penalty?’ The old-school guys like some of that.

“Randy still wants penalties called, but he’ll understand from our thinking how sometimes a penalty isn’t called to make it a fair play.”

And what about the guys who have a reputation among fans – Pat Quinn, John Tortorella, Bob Hartley – because of seemingly explosive tendencies on camera? Sutherland explained Hartley was a guy who always tested a referee with his challenges and, not surprisingly, that Tortorella can crack emotionally at any given moment.

But he also said refs get used to it and come to appreciate and understand how each coach likes to function.

“Guys would say Pat always looked grumpy, but some of the things he’d say were actually funny; you had to try not to laugh,” Sutherland said.

“The play would be going on and you’d hear this big ‘Jeeesus Chriiiist’ constantly, and you knew it was Pat. But he was never really a personal abusive guy. He’d get mad, but I had no problems with him. He’s in control, he doesn’t get like some of the guys.”

When arguments hit a fever pitch, tensions between coach and ref can rise to a boiling point. However, a referee doesn’t want to toss a coach from a game, so it rarely happens. In fact, Sutherland explained when a coach does get thrown out, more often than not he’s just angry at his team, not the ref, and tries to get tossed to send them a message.

Since the NHL circle is so small and referees will see the same coach a few times a season, you’d think it’d be tough to get along after butting heads in an earlier game.

But Sutherland recalled a game he worked last year where a dive was called on a Washington player and coach Bruce Boudreau didn’t like the decision. After giving him a few warnings to calm down, Sutherland handed Boudreau a bench minor and then slapped him with an ejection after the coach continued to fume vocally.

A few nights later, Sutherland was working another Washington game and wanted to diffuse any tensions between the two before the puck dropped.

“I went up to him before the game as we were skating around and I said, ‘Hey there’s nothing personal that night; it’s just business. We’re starting fresh tonight,’ ” Sutherland said. “He goes ‘Well you missed the contact’ and I said ‘Ya, I saw it on tape and I tell you what, it should have been a penalty. But also, when I warn you, you have to stop yelling, because I have to follow through with what I say, too.’

“Once you draw your line you have to stick by your guns.”

A Ref's Life is a look at the world of officiating from the NHL level down through to the minor league level. We'll talk to different referees from all levels of the game, getting a first-hand perspective of the different aspects of the profession. A Ref's Life will appear bi-weekly through the NHL season.

Rory Boylen is's web content specialist and a regular contributor to His blog will appears Tuesdays.

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