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A Ref's Life: Player communication

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

“It’s constant communication and most of them are respectful and appreciate that...

Except there’s been a couple guys over the years who just tell you to shut the f--- up, so you know what? That’s fine. There’s no warning: you do it, it’s just going to be a penalty. That’s how some of the guys prefer to work and that’s fine.” – NHL referee.


It’s a word you hear a lot in hockey circles and really, it’s overused to the point of exaggeration everywhere.

But you can’t really use any other word to describe the important interactive component to a hockey game that fans only hear vague shouts of in passing.

A hockey game is a battle royale with flying frozen rubber discs, sharpened steel blades and prepared carbon fibre sticks that a couple referees are in the middle of. They have to keep it a fair fight and make sure both sides understand how plays are being interpreted throughout the match. The relationship between coach and ref or player and ref may seem severed, but it is deeply involved in the flow and makeup of each game.

Because there are so many stories to tell and because the subject is so deep, this week we look at the player-ref relationship, and Nov. 12 we look at the coach-ref relationship.

“Some of the better guys to talk to are like the (Jarome) Iginlas and I remember Trevor Linden was good to talk to,” recalled NHL referee Kelly Sutherland. “I remember there was a call one night I made against Vancouver and he was so mad. He came up and his comment was ‘You’re a good referee, but that’s a brutal call.’ So he compliments you, but then he hacks you, so it’s a great way to go after you. He just kept his head down and was shaking his head. He was so mad. But it ended on that, so it was kind of a good laugh.”

Whenever the referee’s arm goes up, 50 percent of those involved in the game will be upset, so keeping a consensus of opinion is impossible. What keeps a game sane and in line is the constant communication, even during play. Sure, the referees are there to make penalty calls when a player goes over the line, but he’s also there to prevent them by always keeping players on their toes.

If two guys go into the corner and a hit is made, the ref might warn the aggressor about his free hand, letting him know if it impedes, a penalty will be called.

During battles in front of the net, referees will often shout at the defender as to what he’s allowed to do, but once he brings his stick up a certain height, the whistle will be blown. Explanations and subtle warnings to keep guys out of the box are made between whistles, too.

“The big thing is, say a player is right on the line of taking a penalty,” Sutherland said. “Quite often you go to him during the stoppage and say ‘Listen, you bring your stick up any higher on a guy and you’re putting me in a position to call a penalty. Just so you know, you’re right on the line.’ Most guys appreciate it, they like being talked to.”

But the lines of communication between player and referee are much more than just keeping an understanding of penalty interpretations up to date. There are two unique types of relationships on the ice and one of them is with the goaltender.

Frozen pucks are where an awful lot of post-whistle scrums take place and it’s usually because the goalie’s glove hand has been hacked. Refs will often get blamed for not blowing the whistle fast enough, but the very next play he’ll get reamed out for blowing it too fast, when the puck is still loose.

In the heat of the moment and in the split second it takes to make a decision, it’s not what the bystanders holler, it’s what the players understand that matters. Again, a happy medium has to be agreed upon, even if it’s unpredictable – because that’s just what the whole game is.

“You hate to have a quick whistle when the puck is still loose – and loose scrambles are insane,” Sutherland said, explaining the relationships are difficult to describe. “I’ll just tell the goalie ‘I just have to make sure I see that thing covered and I’m sorry you have to take a hack and everything, but I’m going to do my best as soon as you do have it covered.’ ”

You may think the other important relationship is obvious – the captains. Not to undermine the incredible importance of those discussions, but the other influential in-game understanding is with the fighters.

Sutherland explained that often during a scrum, it’s the enforcers who are in control and by calming them down you diffuse the whole situation and prevent it from escalating to the point where bodies start parading to the box.

“George Parros, great guy, he hit a guy into the linesman as the play was going up the wall and as he hit the player, his stick goes up and high-sticks our linesman, which shook him up pretty bad,” Sutherland said. “Well right after that there’s a whistle, the linesman is lying down on the ice, hurt, and all the players come together for a big scrum. George, who realized he hurt our linesman, looked around and he saw all the fights kind of starting and he actually stopped them to make sure the linesman was OK.

“And when he realized he was OK, then he went and got involved in the altercation. But it was pretty cool because he was like ‘Aw crap, what have I done?’ Those guys are in control most of the time.”

In the end, it’s not the officials the teams are playing against. In fact, they are working together to keep penalties off the board, but also keep a competitive, physical and fair match. It’s not a part of the game you can appreciate from anywhere behind the glass no matter how simple it sounds.

But it’s the subtle interactions that play out every night that are in-game stories behind the written game story.

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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