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A Ref's Life: Stripe speak

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

“The big time for us to discuss stuff is the TV timeouts. I might ask my partner, ‘Hey did you get a good look at that hooking penalty I called?’ And he might have had a different angle and say, ‘Well you maybe could have let that one go.’ You have that minute-and-a-half to reset, think about the last few minutes and move along and think about the next few minutes.” – NHL referee Ian Walsh.

We’ve touched on the importance of communication between referee and player and referee and coach, but perhaps the most important part of the communication game comes between the on-ice officials themselves.

Like the two foes they are out there to moderate, the four officials in a game are their own team. They’ve got each other’s backs, they constantly try to stay on the same page in terms of positioning and interpreting the flow of the game, and part of that is the preparation that comes in the dressing room before the puck drops.

Before each game, the officials have an informal meeting to discuss trends of the two teams, tendencies of some of the players and even their own positioning to make sure all areas of the ice are covered off.

Veteran referee Ian Walsh explains that, while all the officials understand the basics of working a four-man system, some of the older guys will have different tendencies from some of the younger guys and understanding when to ‘cover’ for your partner is of the utmost importance.

“Myself and some other guys, we like to cross ends a lot behind the net,” he explained. “If I’m in one corner and the play is coming towards me, some of the older guys who came up in the three-man system would probably stay in that corner and fight through the traffic, where some of the younger guys would just as soon skate backwards, get out of the way and go to the other side of the rink. And when that guy goes to the other side, his partner at the blueline would cross sides so you have full coverage on both sides of the ice.”

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

To keep consistency in the calls and integrity in the game, the refs always chat back and forth and share their interpretations with their partners, like if a trip gets called, but soon after it becomes apparent it was actually a dive. Walsh explained these talks are not so much to pigeonhole a guy, but to just add another tool to the toolbox and make sure you’re getting all the information available to make the best decisions possible as the game goes on.

The discussions carry on between periods as well, when the referees get out of the spotlight for a few minutes and reflect on what has happened and look forward to how the rest of the game should go.

“You might talk about a play or two and you have the linesmen in there so they might have some input on how they see things,” Walsh said. “You have a good four-man discussion and it’s just time for everyone to kick back and spend a few brief minutes talking about some plays or the type of game we have.”

Away from the rink, two guys come up with four or five rules questions each week and send them around the league to get the officials thinking about the more difficult situations, forcing them to study the rulebook and really think outside the box. They file their decisions for the league to monitor and the answers are revealed a few days later.

But experience is the best teaching tool and, because the whole fraternity is a fine-tuned machine working as one, whenever Walsh has a question or a situation he wants a second opinion on, he’ll turn to the leaders of the pack.

“We have a real tight group,” he said. “There’s some senior guys I’ll call if I’m having an issue with a play, a player, a coach or a situation. I’ll call Bill McCreary or Paul Devorski and ask them how they’d handle it.”

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.

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