Skip to main content

A Ref's Life: Learning the feel

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

“Go buy yourselves new hats. What you need to do is lift the brim of your hat up and get a new level of expectation, get a new horizon, because your horizon is unrealistic. You want perfect-plus and you’re not going to get it, so don’t kid yourself.” – Director of ECAC officiating and former NHL referee Paul Stewart.

Nearly every game referees get criticized and quite often those doing the talking have never seen hockey from the unique angle of an on-ice official who is right in the middle of the action.

The fact is, refereeing is a constant learning process and no matter how experienced you are or how well you memorize the rulebook, there is no getting around mistakes – it’s human nature.

“Every time a referee goes onto the ice, and I tell young referees and coaches this, bring three orange cones and a flagman because you’re still a work in progress,” Stewart explained. “Even until the day you retire you’re always trying to get better.”

It’s easy to follow a game and point out everything you think an official has missed, especially when you have the benefit of instant replay. Just as each and every player – no matter how great they are – will makes mistakes, so too will referees. But since they have no fan support and their decisions directly affect the game, everything is magnified.

“I’m telling you right now, my first game in the NHL would have been killer if I wasn’t who I was,” Stewart said. “I disallowed the Bruins’ winning goal, cost them a chance to have home ice in the Stanley Cup. But the end result was this: At the time of the call I made the right call. I found out later it was wrong, but that’s neither here nor there, I don’t have all the replays.”

In a split second – and with his eyes darting everywhere around the ice surface – a referee has to decide whether or not to make a call. It may not be right 100 percent of the time, but all you can do is put yourself in the position you’re supposed to be in to see the play and interpret your view right away.

“Sometimes the guy grazes a guy and from your angle you’re not sure if he got him from behind. I say ‘put yourself into the position of the player who’s getting hit,’ ” Stewart said. “If that’s you and you got that hit and you have that little ‘oof,’ that little gasp, you know what? That’s a penalty. You have to use your feel. I can’t write in the book this is what it is, because everything is different.”

And that’s what it comes down to. So much of the referee profession is about feel, understanding the situation and appreciating the context of a play. Ultimately, you have to let the game breath and flow, and the only way you can gain that skill is through experience on the ice.

Stewart explained a call made by one official against a goaltender who tiptoed the trapezoid line and perhaps followed through on his pass through the illegal area. By the book that’s a penalty, but that doesn’t necessarily make it the best decision in every instance.

“If you would let that go, I don’t think anybody in the building would have known,” Stewart said. “You know what? At some point in time occasionally you have to use a little bit of feel. Here you go, you have a 0-0 tie, it’s 25 minutes into the game, and you’re calling your first penalty on a trapezoid penalty? Where do you have a little appreciation for the players respecting you and playing the game? They’re playing for you – you have to have a feel for that.”

And when it comes down to it, the cat-calls will never cease and those not in the position will never see the game the same way a referee does – it’s impossible. Like hitting and stickhandling, disagreeing with the ref is just part of the game, so there’s no point in losing any sleep over what you deciphered as a missed or bad call.

The old adage that a referee does a good job if no one notices him can be true if the game is calm. However, there are certainly times when the game puts you in the middle of the action and you can’t help but be the focal point, but that doesn’t mean you did a poor job.

“If you have a game like I had at the Canada Cup in ’87, I had to disallow two Russian goals and not only that, but I had to put (Mark) Messier and (Mike) Gartner in the penalty box at the same time and I put Canada down two men,” Stewart said. “Alan Eagleson was all over me. I turned to him and I said ‘Do you want me to referee? Why’d you bring me? I’m not here to grease the game for you.’ ”

Rory Boylen is's web content specialist and a regular contributor to His blog will appears Tuesdays and his feature 'A Ref's Life' appears every other Thursday.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.


Ryan Graves and Timo Meier

Should the New Jersey Devils Trade for Sharks' Timo Meier?

The New Jersey Devils are enjoying a breakout season, but they'd benefit from another strong winger. Adam Proteau analyzes a possible trade for Timo Meier.

Pierre-Luc Dubois

Pierre-Luc Dubois Recalls Trade to Winnipeg Two Years Later

Who knows where Pierre-Luc Dubois will be in a year or two? But two years after the trade to the Winnipeg Jets, he's on pace for a career high in points.

Connor Bedard

NHL Sour Rankings: Bedard’s Fit Among the NHL’s Bottom Feeders

How could Connor Bedard fit into each roster of the NHL's current worst teams?