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Tough Calls

NHL officials often work in pain because of proximity to action

January 19, 2003|Jason La Canfora | Washington Post

Death threats were nothing new to Kerry Fraser. Enduring twisted scare tactics is part of being an NHL official -- a job that challenges one's body, will, mind and spirit -- but this one was different. It came from within the now-defunct St. Louis Arena and stopped the referee in his tracks.

As he left the ice for the first intermission of Game 6 of the 1986 Campbell Conference finals between the Blues and the Calgary Flames, a policeman grabbed Fraser and informed him of the call. The authorities warned Fraser to consider the gravity of the situation during the intermission, but he was undeterred.

"I said to the officer, 'I'm going back out there,' " Fraser said. " 'He'd better be a good shot, because I'm a small target and I'm pretty quick.' It didn't really stay on my mind once I got out there. I just got into the game and the adrenaline started flowing. I had a job to do. What would I say, 'No, call the game off, I'm not going back out there?' "

In the macho world of professional ice hockey, officials must be as fearless as the players. But while the tales of bravery among those who carry sticks are part of the game's lore -- Toronto's Bobby Baun scoring the Stanley Cup winning goal in overtime in 1964 while playing with a badly broken ankle best captures the culture of this sport -- the desire, raw athleticism and toughness of hockey's officials is rarely broached.

It is routine for these men, 14 of whom are enshrined in the Hall of Fame, to receive a host of stitches between periods and race back to the ice. Getting struck by pucks and sticks is a regular occurrence. Taking a misplaced uppercut to the face when breaking up a fight is a right of passage. They describe concussions, broken bones and stints in physical rehabilitation in the casual manner office workers might discuss the travails of a rush-hour commute.

Few spectators pause while watching a game to assess the skating ability and agility of the referees and linesmen, who adroitly climb the boards, avoid interfering with the play and keep pace with some of the most conditioned athletes in the world within tight confines and unforgiving boards. There is no out of bounds or foul territory. Hockey officials toil within the very fabric of the game.

The pace of the sport has hastened immeasurably. Players have become masses of rippling muscle and fortified bone. The proliferation of instant replay and video review has amplified the demands of officiating. Yet, for the most part, the officials remain unseen on the ice -- and that is how they prefer it.

"There was an era of them doing their jobs when there was no videotape, so there was a lot less scrutiny," Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "And what the era of videotape has shown is that their calls and non-calls -- and there are literally hundreds of them in the course of a game -- are right so much of the time.

"It's not that they're perfect, because nobody is, but they are closer to perfect than they are given credit for. What gets focused on is the one or two calls that may get missed, and what is unfair about that is, when that happens, it's because somebody has had the ability to sit down for 30 seconds watching it in slow motion and watching it from four different angles. What our officials do on the ice, skating night in and night out, is simply incredible."

Do not consider a career as a hockey official if the sight of blood causes you to recoil. A fear of needles or hospitals is a definite job hazard. The ability to avoid an oncoming puck speeding above 100 mph yet still view every skater on the ice is essential. And that is only the beginning.

"It's a thankless job," said Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman, whose criticism of officials resulted in countless fines during his career. "My brother was a referee, a good referee in the Quebec League, and he loved it. You've got to love it to do it.

"I thought he was crazy, but he didn't care. You've got to have that police mentality -- you've got to be willing to punish people and you can't worry about making friends and influencing people. That comes with the territory. And you've got to make split-second decisions on the ice with [players] making 20, 50 times what [officials] are and there are no home games. All that stuff must go through their minds."

Every official can run off his own litany of injuries. In 1982, Hall of Fame defenseman Paul Coffey's slap shot fractured the end off of Fraser's fibula 10 minutes into a game. Fraser, who has been in the NHL for 26 years, finished working the game, went to the hospital and was out for six weeks. Two years ago a deflected shot shattered his cheekbone.

Mark Howe, playing for Philadelphia at the time, once fired a puck at Fraser's head after a series of calls went against the Flyers. Fraser warned Coach Mike Keenan to yank Howe off the ice and calm him down, but, since the outburst was out of character for the defenseman, Fraser never reported the incident to the league.

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