How living in a bubble could foster relationships between players, officials

Former NHL referee Bill McCreary joins HC to tell a funny story from his rookie season as an official about an incident with the great Dave "Tiger" Williams that he'll never forget.

EDMONTON — It was back in the ‘80s and a veteran linesman named Randy Mitton had just whistled down a play, one hand raised to his mouth to blow his whistle, the other pointing at the place where Jari Kurri had touched the puck to initiate an offside.

Wayne Gretzky had taken a long outlet, left a drop pass for Kurri right on the blue-line, then cruised deep into the offensive zone, awaiting the arrival of Kurri and the puck. Of course, the entire puck has to be over the entire line for the play to be on-side.

Mitton, knew this. Gretzky, strangely, did not.

“Maybe two seconds passes, and Kurri picks up the puck and brings it over the line. So I blow the whistle: Offside. It’s an easy call,” Mitton told me a few years back for the book, The Battle of Alberta. “Gretzky comes by and he’s screamin’ at me, givin’ it to me. I give him an unsportsmanlike conduct.

“Well, some days later we’re in L.A., and we used to drink — players and officials — in a place called The Melody Bar. Gretzky was around the other side, and I walked around to talk to him. I told him that story, and he said, ‘I didn’t know the entire puck had to be inside the zone?!?’ He sent over a couple of beers and it was all good.”

Those, hockey fans, were the days before team charters. When players, referees, coaches — even media — would gather in a “hockey bar” like The Melody. Or The Lodge in Chicago. Or Sherlock Holmes in Edmonton.

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There, they would come to understand each other, in those days before the team bus scooped up players and coaches at the rink, transporting them to a team charter an hour after the final buzzer, destined not for the bar but for the next city on the NHL schedule.

Today, in this weird, mid-summer tournament that is about to begin, that all comes back. To an extent.

With players, officials, coaches and general managers all living in the same bubble, the referee who made the game-deciding call could well end up in a Starbucks lineup with a group of players from the affected team. A linesman who whistled down a play for an offside will come upon that team’s head coach and GM walking to breakfast, still griping about the call he made.

“We do see a lot of players. There are 12 teams,” said linesman Jonny Murray, who we spoke with over the phone from inside the bubble earlier this week. “We see coaches. We see general managers. I have no issue talking with them — I’ve been in the league for 20 years. I’ll chat with those guys. I’ve had some good and bad conversations with anyone who has been in the league a long time. There is respect.

So far, so good, he said on Tuesday.

“Now, we’re starting on Saturday,” he cautioned. “Today everyone is loose and happy. I don’t know how it will be when a team is down two games to nothing.”

Spend some time around NHL officials and you’ll hear their mantra: “Fifty per cent of the people are going to disagree with every call you make.”

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Or this old standard: “The expectations start off at perfection, and go down from there.”

Meanwhile, the game gets faster and faster. And the television replay angles that so deceive us into thinking the official’s job is easy — that calls are obvious — increase exponentially. With no fans in the buildings, the NHL has proudly increased its arsenal of cameras in Toronto and Edmonton.

So unlike the officials, Sportsnet will always have an unobscured angle slowed down to a speed that makes the zebra’s job appear simple.

But if you think these guys don’t welcome this rare chance to be available to players’ queries, you’ve got it wrong. Most officials welcome any opportunity to bring hockey people into their world, a place that is impossible to fully understand until you’ve been there.

This could be a good thing, if players and refs get more opportunities to talk things out away from the rink.

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“I believe that,” said referee Marc Joannette this week. “If there are opportunities to have discussions, to have players and officials see each other outside the 200 x 85, you see a different perspective. Maybe build a better rapport too.

“It reminds me of my days in the American League, when we were around the teams all the time,” he chuckled. “We used to travel with them in the playoffs. For me, it’s going back to when I started. I see it as we are all one big group trying to work together to stay healthy and see the Cup be given in October.”

There is a relationship between players and officials, to be sure. But it’s not what it once was, and building familiarity takes longer today than it once did.

“Twenty years ago, every player knew the (Bill) McCrearys, the (Kerry) Frasers, the (Don) Koharskis. Now, I don’t want to say we’re just numbers, but … it takes longer to make a name for yourself because we have no names on our backs,” Murray said.

Like Mitton before him, Murray is happy to discuss a play over with a player in the coffee lineup, or anywhere else inside the bubble.

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“Let’s say I make the wrong call one night,” he begins. “And I’m going to explain to him five days down the road why I missed it. Maybe it was bad positioning. Maybe a guy skated in front of me just as I was supposed to see what was going on. If you explain to them why you missed it … they realize.

“I understand that a player can have a bad game. They understand that we can have a bad game. It sucks, but it’s life,” said Murray, who has been taken away from his summer business — Extreme Power Skating — the largest summer hockey school in Quebec, for this rare assignment. “It’s always easy when there are 35 angles on the TV. It’s not an excuse, but sometimes it happens and we miss (the call). The same way a player can sometimes miss an open net.”

In the end, just as Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice predicted that no one will ever forget who won the 2020 Stanley Cup, nobody who is a part of this thing — player, official, media person — will ever forget being a part of it.

“It’s a dream come true when you step into the NHL. It’s what I always wanted to do, and I wasn’t close to good enough to be a player in the NHL,” said Joannette. “You are overwhelmed at the start, realizing your dream. For me now, coming closer to the end — and even more under these circumstances — I think I appreciate it so much more.”

Joannette’s next playoff assignment will be playoff game No. 160, to go with three Stanley Cup Finals and nearly 1,400 regular season games. That experience, a professional life lived under that level of nightly pressure, leads Joannette to predict that everyone living in the bubble will require some special attention as these bubble playoffs roll along.

“More than ever, we’re going to have to be supportive of each other. Of our families,” said Joannette, 51. “Because being away that long there is some stuff that is going to happen at home, for sure. And there might be some stuff that’s going to happen here. So we’re going to have to make a very conscious effort on being there for each other.

“There will be tougher days than others. For ourselves and our families, we really have to come in close with each other.”


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