“The worst thing that can happen is you drop the puck and the damn thing stays in your feet, because they’re just like wild animals coming for that piece of meat.” – Veteran NHL linesman Brad Lazarowich.
It only takes a split second, but a faceoff is such a big part of a hockey game because it determines positioning and puck possession. Games can be won and lost off key draws; Uwe Krupp’s Stanley Cup-winning goal in 1996 was the result of an offensive-zone win.
Linesmen have to make sure each draw is fair to both centers lining up – so every puck drop is a process.
“You have to be really consistent with what you tell the players,” Lazarowich explained. “It might be ‘make sure your feet are behind the lines’ or ‘make sure you come with your stick on the white part on the dot’ – you’re always consistent. I don’t venture too far away from the four or five points I say every faceoff.
“You remind them all the time of what they have to do, because if you don’t they’ll go back to what they want to do, which is to try and win the draw and cheat as much as possible.”
Faceoffs become even more important as the game goes on and the tension builds. If a game is tied or close late, offensive-zone draws can ultimately dictate the outcome of the game.
Lazarowich noted that while it’s important to always remain consistent in your instructions to the players, these crucial draws demand a little extra attention. You can’t forget it’s the player’s job to win that draw at any cost and they will try to get a leg up any way they can.
“You will say to the visiting player before we all get going ‘You need to come down first, you are the visitor. I will make sure the home team doesn’t come down on top of you. I will make sure the faceoff is fair or I will blow the whistle and we will do it again,’ ” he said.
“To the home player you will say things like, ‘If you come on top of him I will throw you out late in the game.’ You really have to get in their face.”
Some players consistently try to cheat on the draw and get tossed out, while others step in with their head down and just play it by the book. Linesmen recognize these tendencies and communicate this with one another in the dressing room before a game.
And you’ll often notice centers jumping on the draw before the puck drops, but instead of tossing them out, the linesmen will reset the players, communicate instructions to them and try again. So why doesn’t someone get tossed from the draw in these situations?
“Lots of times it’s our own fault,” Lazarowich said. “You might pump-fake and move your hand. The second the linesman moves his hand they just take off. They look for the movement of the hand, not the dropping of the puck.”
It’s a touchy situation because after the first faceoff violation in which one center is removed, a second violation results in a penalty, so linesmen have to be sure if they kick out a center it’s for a good reason.
In fact, communication and understanding in this area is so important that Lazarowich said he’ll tell the player exactly why he was tossed from the draw and also ask him to tell his coach why he was kicked out so everyone remains on the same page of what is expected at every drop.
“I’m very specific about why I tossed them out,” Lazarowich said. “ ‘You have to go because you turned; you have to go because you’re slapping the guy’s stick and I told you that you cannot attack his stick like that.’ ”
Faceoffs can also be physically tough on linesmen. Players often get low on the draw to turn on the puck, so they’ll slide their hand down the stick, revealing the butt-end. When the players turn, linesmen will often get hit in the body or in the face, so it might be surprising to see them crouch low to drop the puck.
But Lazarowich pointed out that while you’re putting yourself in the line of fire, it’s absolutely necessary. Linesmen realize they are going to get hit – it’s just inevitable – but it’s more important to be involved with the draw as much as possible to make sure both centermen have a fair play on the puck.
And it’s not always just the stick that’s a danger to the linsemen. Lazarowich recalls one scary moment when he was involved in an end-zone draw, but couldn’t retreat to the boards and out of the zone after he had dropped the puck.
“The two wingers behind me both pinched and they got their sticks locked into each other,” he explained. “They pushed me to the front of the net and a shot came and just about took my head off. I was trying to get out of the way, but we were all locked in these sticks. Finally the whistle went because the referee realized I was in a really bad spot.”
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.
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