There's not a referee in the world who can please every player, coach and fan. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Like Cindy Crawford and her mole, the game of hockey is beautifully imperfect.
Whenever a tic-tac-toe passing play is converted or a perfectly timed hip-check upends a surprised attacker, we see a side of wonder that inspires copycat scrimmagers and small-legged scurriers.
Whenever a helmet comes off and the head of a checked opponent strikes the ice or a battle of fists ends with injury, we see the game rear its ugly head, making us shudder.
But growing up with and learning from hockey makes you realize it can be more than just a game, it can be a lesson in life. With all its ups, downs, twists, turns, fortunate and unfortunate incidents, there’s a lot any hockey player, coach, manager or fan has to endure if they are to ever satisfy their ultimate goals and dreams.
For instance, the flashy twine-ticklers and terrific fanny-flatteners featured on highlight reels are the result of a successful completion of prior tasks. You don’t just find the puck on your stick and you don’t just get a chance to shoot the puck on net, you first have to get the puck out of your corner, out of your end, into their end and past their defensemen – and somewhere along the way you’re going to have to win a faceoff or two. From there you either hit the open man with a pass or battle for positioning in front to set up a siege of the cage; opportunities for the eye-appealing plays come only after you’ve worked hard and earned the ice and possession you’ve gained.
And then there are the variables; the unforeseen occurrences and uncalculated odds.
NHL referees have the toughest and most thankless job in pro sports. They manage the quickest and most demanding of the major leagues and do it with the fewest officials on the surface to boot.
When a team loses, just like most anything else, the immediate urge is to point the finger and pass off the blame to a party without recourse. The refs are an entity that hold ultimate power over each game and are an easy and wide open target for mudslinging, character assassination and even physical challenges. Unfortunately it’s an ugly part of this game and it’s here to stay in some way, shape, or form, but like all the other intangibles within hockey, one can grow up and take a lesson away from the rink.
Being the natural and organic game it is, human error can play a decisive role in any given hockey game. Slashes, trips and interferences go undetected or overly detected, livening up the atmosphere of a game by getting people up in arms and into the action. But what’s done is done; name-callings and death stares will linger, but regardless of what anyone else thinks, someone is going on the power play when the ref makes a call.
From there it’d be easy to go into a faceoff with a defeated attitude and whine at the ref during play, while trying to bat away a pass, but instead, good hockey players and teams bear down and box out. Say what you will about an erroneous penalty call changing momentum, killing off a two- or five-minute 5-on-4 will hand it right back.
One of the game’s greatest stories came from behind enemy lines and through ominous circumstances. Canada’s 1972 squad was down in the Summit Series when they entered a hostile Moscow arena. In that theatrical comeback the team endured waves of questionable calls and, while they surely expressed their ire, they put their heads down and fought through to victory.
As well, the Canadian women’s 2002 Olympic hockey team overcame being called for 13 penalties by the American-born referee (who only assessed four minors to the U.S. squad) and still won the gold medal by a 3-2 score.
That’s what good teams do to make themselves great. The ones that succumb to obstacles and unplanned delays are the ones that don’t secure places in history. If a team is truly championship caliber they will earn it and won’t fall short of their goal and mope about it all summer because of a bump along the way.
Reacting to a call with emotion is a hockey staple, but what shouldn’t be is taking that anger out of the arena and onward. For any disagreeable call in any given game that ref has his own logical opinion from his own on-ice perspective – where every decision is made in a blink with plays and infractions going off all around like camera flashes in a darkened arena. Whatever initial thought and reaction the ref has to a play is the final decision, right or wrong. Lord Stanley’s Mug is the most difficult pro sports trophy to win and these honest blips are what help keep it that way.
There’s a famous saying in hockey that should relate to all its players and is perhaps one that defines hockey’s spirit: What happens on the ice, stays on the ice.
A more noble lesson in competition has not been phrased. And since hockey is just a game, it’s one lesson that should be taken to heart.