During his tenure as the Federal Hockey League’s director of officiating, Eugene Binda said he has witnessed players bump officials in the heat of the moment. He’s watched coaches tear a strip off the referees working a game. There was a stick-swinging incident last season, he said, and there's even been an alleged incident or two involving a coach barging into a changing room to threaten the officials. But Sunday night’s debacle during a game between the Elmira Enforcers and Carolina Thunderbirds was the tipping point for Binda, who has tendered his resignation and left the league after nearly 10 years with the league.
What led to Binda’s resignation was an altercation at the end of the first period of Sunday’s game between Elmira owner Robbie Nichols, a draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 1983 who played 122 AHL games over the course of a decade-long professional career, and two of the officials working the contest. The dust-up between Nichols and the officials was sparked by a controversial goal scored by Carolina player-coach Andrew Niche.
“The referee was pointing to the line like 10 times that he was sure that it went in,” said Nichols on Tuesday. “It comes up on the Jumbotron that the puck never crossed the line. As an owner, former player, probably a hot-head as a player…I was in the Zamboni tunnel as they were coming off and I had my arms crossed and just wanted to ask the ref how in the f--- did he call that a goal, when it looked like he was sure it went in.”
It was with Nichols in the tunnel – where he had been standing after checking in on captain Ahmed Mahfouz, who had been hit from behind and left the game after separating his shoulder – and the referees approaching that the altercation began. Video sent to The Hockey News shows the incident in question.
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Said Nichols: “(The referee) just walked right through me, plowed right into me, and then we jostled, he stepped back on the ice, and nothing was going on. Then I’m still standing there and this linesman comes flying in, gives me a two-handed push and I step backwards and trying to grab onto him, grab onto him and then it broke up and they went on the ice.”
Binda, who disagreed with Nichols' recounting of events, said the officials returned to the ice “because they feared for their lives, and I’m not using that as a way to escalate this thing.” It was at that point that the referees called Binda, their supervisor, and were advised to “pack their bags and go, call the police and make sure they get out of the building safely.”
As a result, play was suspended and the game was subsequently cancelled. According to a release by the Elmira Police Department, officers arrived at Elmira’s First Arena shortly after 5 p.m. Sunday where they were “met by an unruly crowd complaining of inconsistent performance by the games (sic) officiating staff.” The Elmira Police report adds that no one was injured, and that the matter has been closed “after further conversation with the parties involved.”
In the wake of Sunday’s incident, Binda made clear that he would no longer be working with the league and resigned his post, as first reported by Bus League Hockey. The FHL acknowledged his departure in a statement released late Monday. In addition, WETM 18 sports director Andy Malnoske reported Tuesday that Nichols has been fined $25,000. FHL commissioner Donald Kirnan could not be reached for comment.
“We’re very, very upset and embarrassed the way this has happened and took place,” Nichols said. “It’s a good hockey league, our fans enjoy this brand of hockey here in Elmira and around the league. The league has gotten a lot better over the years. Quality players that now play in the Southern Pro and ECHL have come from this league. So, definitely, we’re upset.”
Despite Binda’s resignation and Nichols’ fine, the show will go on for the FHL. Binda said the league had requested his help to find replacement referees. He declined. Nichols told The Hockey News, though, that the league has put “a new guy in charge that’s working on that and referees will be in place.”
As for his resignation and decision to pull his crews from working the games, Binda said he has received support from throughout the officiating community. He stands by his decision, too. “If I would have stayed there and somebody would have got hurt, I would have been on the stand trying to defend working for them,” Binda said. “That’s how I felt about it.”
He’s skeptical, however, that the events of Sunday’s game will solve the problems that permeate the game when it comes to treatment of officials, be it in the FHL or otherwise.
“This incident is not going to change anything,” Binda said. “It’s going to highlight it for about fifteen minutes of fame and it’s going fall back into the sunset, and unfortunately, until somebody gets maimed or killed, and God forbid I’m around to see that, maybe then people will take a look this. But until then? I don’t think so.”