Concussions are serious, but who is accountable
Ice hockey referees have the hardest job in sports.
In our feature, Around the Room, we highlighted a story about a 17-year-old referee who left the rink scared from being screamed at by a former coach. That is unacceptable. We don’t think anyone–player, coach, parent, or referee–should leave the rink fearing for their safety. To the contrary, a rink should be a safe haven for all its patrons.
But their has to be a medium. We have to find some common ground. Referees have to hold-up their end of the bargain.
Referees get paid. We have no problem with that. But they should earn that money. Simply showing-up to collect a check, isn’t enough. They earn it by keeping players safe, and calling the game to the best of their ability.
Please Note: we did not say call the game perfectly, or even correctly. Hockey is a game of mistakes. Referees are not immune to that, and should be afforded that leeway.
If referees are putting in the effort, if they are in position, if they are working to get it right, they are earning their paycheck.
Getting a hockey game right is a tough call
There is a difference between letting them play, and ignoring clear calls.
Ignoring clear calls is irresponsible. It is how games get out of hand. It’s how players get hurt. That falls directly on the shoulders of the on-ice officials. The Refs.
We watched a game recently, where this very thing happened.
The facts: How it happened
The game was a bit chippy from the start. The red team was called for a few penalties early in the first period. Then, whistles seemed to disappear. Later in the first period, the blue team was on a breakaway. The player was hauled down from behind at the hashmarks. It was a clear case for a penalty shot. The refs opted for a minor penalty.
Near the end of the first period, a blue defenseman was playing the puck on the end wall. A red player had at least two full strides, and could see nothing but numbers, then proceeded to plaster him into the boards. It was on the wall, from behind, and arguably a charge. The hit forced a stoppage in play, as the blue defenseman was slow to get up before leaving the ice under his own power. He missed the following shift. On this play, there were at least three calls–both minor and major–the officials could have called. Instead, the refs opted to keep their whistles in their pockets.
Early in the second period, a blue player was on a breakaway. He was tackled from behind. No call was made. Another example of a clear penalty left uncalled. Due to the officials unwillingness to make some very clear calls, the fire had been sparked. Some other, judgement calls were also not called, which stoked the flames.
The officials, either by their inability to see the game on its own merit, or their unwillingness to call the game against the home team, set the stage for tragedy. An avoidable tragedy.
Midway through the second period, a blue forward was playing a loose puck in the neutral zone near the scorekeeper’s box. This is a particularly dangerous area. There is no glass at the players benches, but there is glass around the scorer’s bench. You Tube has plenty of videos of tough plays in this area of the ice.
The blue forward was about three feet off the boards, and played the puck into the zone presumably for a change. A red player came from near the center ice face-off spot, with three-to-four full strides, and zeroed in on the blue player. The hit was high, forcing the blue player’s head into the dasher. The bad news is he didn’t get up for a while. The good news is he didn’t stop moving.
Analysis: What went wrong
Zoe talked to Shirt Sam about the play. Of the three of us, Sam is our resident concussion expert, and best suited to be a referee. He has taken the USA Hockey Referee course for the information and experience. He chooses to stay on the bench, rather than don the stripes.
“Well, he went down, but didn’t stop moving,” he said. “That tells me he didn’t lose consciousness, or have a spinal injury. The bad news is he did seem a little wobbly getting up, that makes me think concussion. The worst part of all of this, and it should not be overlooked, is that it was preventable.”
Sam cited several plays leading-up to that hit, which could have prevented the injury, if the referees had called them. Many we have already mentioned.
“In military terms, this falls under dereliction of duty,” Sam said. “The officials never had control of that game. That’s bad. They never gained control following the hit. That’s worse.
“The player who dolled the hit, went to the penalty box originally. It wasn’t until the crowd reacted, that they threw the player out. You can’t officiate a hockey game by popular opinion; however, in this case it was the right call. But that doesn’t excuse how the call was made. Officials must have the resolve to call the game to the best of their ability, not by committee.”
Sam spoke with a friend, who is a veteran referee. Sending a player to the penalty box, while the officials sort everything out, is standard procedure and good practice. That does make sense. So the appearance of the crowd influencing the calls, may have been coincidental.
But the officiating didn’t seem to change. The red team’s play did not seem to change.
“Following a bad hit, and ejection of a player, I’d expect the officiating to tighten-up. It didn’t,” Sam said. “The red team continued to play chippy, and calls weren’t made. Questionable hits, late hits, and some interference–among other things–thrown-in. There was even a late hit, or two, after the buzzer in the third period.”
Coaches are not without responsibility
While the referees were primarily responsible for setting the stage for the hit, forcing one player from the game, they aren’t alone in the culpability category. The teams were fortunate no one else got hurt. But was this just a one-off game, or was this indicative of something more?
“You know, early in the game with the first couple of penalties called, I kind of thought the red team was just pumped for the game,” Sam said. “I thought they were amped a bit, and felt they would settle-in. That didn’t happen. So, yeah, there may be a shared responsibility.
“I watched the coaches, on both sides, and was disappointed by both. The red team’s coach never reacted. He never spoke to his team–never told them to knock it off. That’s a signal to me that this may be status quo. That’s concerning. I’m not convinced that it is actively coached, but if it goes without consequence it is sanctioned by omission. The blue team’s coach wasn’t much better. He continued his discussion with his assistant, showing no concern for one of his own players who didn’t get up. I don’t think either coach displayed a proper reaction to the situation. Neither exhibited any leadership.”
There was a trainer on duty for the game. He was also the scorekeeper. After a brief triage, the player was removed from the game. That is consistent with all current protocols. But what about the double duty?
“It’s great there was an EMT on-duty for the game, but doubling as the scorekeeper seems irresponsible,” Sam said. “I was watching him following the hit, and he was torn between his two responsibilities. If the injury was more severe, where would his loyalties lie?”
This seems like a case study. There are so many takeaways, which can be improved upon and learned from. But what will be the outcome?
“I’d love to say this game will be used as an impetus for change for the better, but I’m not naive,” Sam said.
- Coaching: Both coaches need more training, but who will tell them?
- Players: If nothing is done, beyond that one player being ejected, other players may be at risk.
- Game Staffing: Should a trainer be doubled-up with scorekeeping duties?
- Athletic Directors: As this was a high school game, the two athletic directors may discuss it, but will it end there? Probably. Is that enough? No.
- Officials: This situation begins and ends with the officials. We maintain the primary responsibility of this injured–probably concussed–player lies with the referees. They may discuss it, but like the coaches. it may fall on deaf ears. If there is no accountability, there will be no change.
So what is the answer?
A day-for-a-day punishment?
“Hockey is a fast, contact sport,” Sam said. “No one is advocating wrapping young players in bubble wrap. We have players getting stronger and faster every day. They’re flying around a 200-foot ice cube on razor blades, carrying a club. There is some inherent danger associated with that, but we have to get rid of that deliberate intent to injure. There is no place for that. A player missing half a game isn’t enough. How long will the player who got hit be out? The penalty should fit the crime.”
Sam brings up an interesting point. One, we think, is worth exploring. If a play is egregious enough to get a player ejected, let the suspension match the time lost by the injured player. So, if the hurt player is on the disabled list for 10 days, the player who caused the injury and ejected should serve a 10-day suspension.
While the day-for-a-day punishment may curtail the intent to injure penalties, it does nothing to gain a new crop of referees. Our sport is in dire need of referees.
One possibility in increasing the referee pool, and helping officials get better, is post game evaluations.
A 1-page checklist can help. If coaches have a mechanism to evaluate the officiating their games, the officiating will get better. The checklist may be paper-based, but an online survey may be better. It could be a simple yes or no survey, or a graded scale 1-5.
But that doesn’t help the abuse of officials. You are right. We hear you. Referees could also evaluate the coaches. With coaches and referees evaluating each other, it would keep everyone honest–and perhaps more professional, all around.
If personnel in each role evaluates the other, trends will develop. For referees:
- Joey’s skating isn’t up-to-par.
- Jill is often out of position.
- Fred consistently calls good games, we have few complaints from a variety of coaches.
Trends would also surface for referees evaluating coaches.
- Mayfield’s coach screams about off-sides.
- London’s players never have mouthpieces.
- Summerville’s coach is intense, but respectful.
Both referees and coaches can use constructive feedback to get better. Chief referees and coaching directors can use the information to properly assign games and teams. It can be used for improvement all around. Improvement is what we look for in our players. It should also be what we expect from our referees and coaches.
We don’t think officials, particularly young officials, should ever be fearful while carrying-out their duties. Coaches, parents, and players should all do a better job of recognizing the necessity of the job they are doing. They are dong a job. But we do think referees should see beyond the paycheck, and work hard to get it right–nobody said it’s easy.
We all need to work together to make every aspect of our game better.