When the Olympics roll around every four years, there are adjustments to be made by the players, from the bigger ice to different rules to new teammates.
But you rarely hear about the plight of the referee, who also has to adjust to changes and can’t afford to miss a beat.
When the Games were in Turin in 2006, the ice was international size and the one-referee system was still being used. These were two big changes for NHL officials who were getting used to the two-referee system employed by the league after the lockout.
To best prepare NHL refs for the international stage, the IIHF held a seminar in Toronto – and another upon arrival in Europe – for those going to Italy to go over the different rules and any other changes that would have to be made. In fact, to get used to the one-man system again, the NHL refs were sent down to the American League.
“The NHL had us go to the AHL and do a couple games just because it’s totally different positioning and totally different skating, so we did a couple games just prior to going over,” said veteran ref Don Van Massenhoven.
Pierre Racicot, another NHL official who worked the ’06 Games, said it wasn’t the on-ice game that was different; it was the whole atmosphere.
“It was my first European experience and I’m used to North American fans, but European fans were totally different,” he said. “They sing, chant, play music…It was great.”
Of course, in Vancouver, there aren’t as many adjustments for the NHL mediators. The ice is smaller and the two-man system is being used, so this time it’s the European refs who get an eye-opening experience.
If you read that last sentence and shuddered, thinking of the amateurish reputation European officials have with North American fans, know this: The NHL refs who went to Turin insist that perception is a complete mirage.
Both Van Massenhoven and Racicot said the European referee myth is overblown.
In 2006, the two sides spent a lot of time together and shared stories of coming up through the ranks – and it was surprising how similar they all were.
“The European officials take a lot of crap, but they’re good officials,” Van Massenhoven said. “There were about 20 of us, so quite a good friendship developed with officials from all over the world.”
Racicot also pointed out how the IIHF encouraged zero tolerance on obstruction in 2006 and that was something new to the European officials.
“We had gone through half a season of learning and adjusting…for them it was a crash course in how to do it,” Racicot said. “It took them a couple games to adjust, but I think they’re used to calling more penalties so I think it was an easy adjustment for them.”
In Vancouver, there will be times when the two-man system is split between an NHL ref and a European official and neither is concerned about consistency. As Van Massenhoven said, “Hockey is hockey,” and once the growing pains are over, the refs will settle in and be at their best.
Just ask Racicot about his opening game four years ago and it’s clear brain cramps can happen to anyone:
“They don’t call touch icing, which I had not done in 15 or 20 years. So the very first play, you’re focused, you’re going on your instinct and it tells you, ‘OK, I have to wait until the defenseman touches the puck.’
“By the time he touched the puck he didn’t really want to touch it and the other guy almost had a shot on net and it took me five seconds to blow the whistle and realize, ‘Oops.’ It was mass confusion out there.”
This article appeared in THN’s Olympic Preview “Chasing Glory.”
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