Spector on NHL: Refs under fire in playoffs

At this time of year, they are Canada’s punching bags.

The men who officiate National Hockey League games make hundreds of accurate decisions every night. But come playoff time, it’s never about the ones they get right.

When that puck slides over Antti Niemi’s pad and into the San Jose Sharks net back in Game 4 of the Los Angeles-San Jose series — a blown call in a game that would end in a 2-1 score for San Jose — Twitter goes apoplectic.

And the colleagues of Brad Meier, the referee with the quick whistle on that night?

“We’ve all been through that,” said veteran National Hockey League referee Paul Devorski, whose season came to an end after the first round. “You’re on the ice and you’re dying a thousand deaths down there. You hear the whistle go, and you see the puck keep squirting, and it goes in the net. But once that whistle goes, the play’s dead. You can’t bring it back.”

Few sports are as introspective with its rulebook as the NHL. There are changes every summer, and now, growing talk about a coach’s challenge flag for situations like that one.

“I don’t know if you can fix that play,” said Devorski, whose NHL resume includes more than 1,600 games in total. “That whistle controls everything in the game. Once you hear it, everything stops. I’m not sure you can fix that.

“As far as wanting to get it right on a goaltender interference call? I’m sure we can fix that (with expanded replay). But as far as the play where we blow the whistle, the play’s dead.”

The one thing you have to know about referees is they are like coaches. Ask a coach about his roster, and he’ll say his job is to coach the 20 players his general manager provides for him.

Ask a referee about the rulebook, and they’ll tell you it’s their job to call whichever rules are put in there by the Competition Committee, the GMs, and the league as a whole.

Still, these guys are more like you and I than you think. Take, for instance, the delay of game penalty for shooting the puck over the glass.

“I hate it,” admits Devorski, whose brother Greg has been an NHL linesman for the past two decades. “Only because … we all knew when a guy was tired and he threw the puck over the glass. Now … a guy just tries to put it off the glass, and he’s got it a little too high, and sure as hell he gets a penalty.

“I don’t like calling it, but I don’t have any say in the matter.”

So in a lightning fast game with millions of dollars on the line, your friendly neighbourhood referee goes out there every night trying to be perfect — yet knowing he won’t be. And for the most part, he does it without the copious replays that you and I have access to.

“We get one look at it in the ice. You can look at it four times (in the press box or at home) within a matter of a minute, and (say) it’s definitely a penalty.”

Then there are players intentionally trying to fool the zebras by diving. As if the job isn’t hard enough.

“The best medicine is to take the one guy. Take him off, and if they score a powerplay goal on it, his coach is going to be all over him,” Devorski explained.  “(Diving) is a really tough penalty to call in the playoffs. That guy is going to say, ‘Hey Devo, I don’t do that. I’m not a diver.’ And I’m (thinking) ‘Right now you’re full of crap. ‘Cause you did dive.’

“Come playoff time, everyone turns into a habitual liar. Nobody does anything wrong.”

Except for, of course, the referees.

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