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Justin Bourne’s Blog: Inside player-referee relations

Adam Foote of the Colorado Avalanche argues a call of referee Wes McCauley. (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Adam Foote of the Colorado Avalanche argues a call of referee Wes McCauley. (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)

The player-referee relationship is fraught with difficulties.

And, actually, it’s kind of…awkward. For a number of reasons. One is it helps to be friends, but if it doesn’t come naturally, you at least have to fake it. Everything we saw demonstrated in the Alex Burrows situation, we already knew. Being on the bad side of the ref is a bad idea, because he holds the “luck” in his pocket.

He can give a team the type of bad breaks that can kill it; like, say, a penalty in the last minutes of a game.

So, all players go through the smile-and-fake-laugh cycle necessary to at least seem civil. In turn, referees go through the same smile-and-fake-laugh cycle so not to appear Auger-esque. That’s right Stephane, you’re a verb now.

Pretty sure that ref Augered me last night.


For the most part, we’re all buddies out there. Even the angry, soundless clips you see of players yelling at refs are generally pretty decent, honestly. Minus the blue language, of course, which flows naturally from both sides of the relationship.

“Garrett, there’s no f---ing way you make that call on me after letting his slash go,” would be a lot more common than the assumed and more direct, “F--- you, Garrett.”

The higher the level I played at, the more reasonable referees got. They’ll listen to you, speak in a controlled voice and actually think instead of getting defensive and reacting quickly, like, say, stubborn ECHL refs. In a nutshell, the best referees are confident in themselves.

The more reasonable and confident they are, the more you can joke with them and the more they talk during the play – an underrated quality in a ref. Some guys get so comfortable they’ll have a running dialogue aimed at you mid-play, like a boxing referee.

Behind you, Bourno, I’m behind you. On the wall now, I’m on the wall…

A ref that catches a Burrows-like embellishment might scold him mid-play.

No way Alex, no way, get up – as in, I wouldn’t call that if I was reffing little kids, if you don’t get up soon I’m calling a dive.

Dialogue goes back and forth throughout the whole game. At the lower level, where video replay isn’t around, they’ll ask for honesty after a goal (which leads to its own problems):

You tip that Bournie?

Of course I did.

And the better you know the ref, the easier it is to respect him and his authority. It’s a lot easier to play the game when you can speak like an adult to the guy between whistles or after the period.

You realize I was hit into their ‘tender last period, right Stripes?

You just stay outta that crease, Bourne.


Refs unwilling to engage with the players don’t advance and refs who get too involved (Auger) see their performance suffer.

Like a good babysitter or parent, they have to be able to joke and laugh, but also maintain their status as the one “in charge.” Great that we can laugh, but when I say it’s time to get to the box, it’s time to get to the box.

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Some players – and it appears Burrows is one of these – don’t grasp the fragile relationship we share with the officials. A penalty isn’t a personal slight; it’s a penalty because you did something illegal. The same way we sometimes miss an open net, refs sometimes miss obvious calls. And, if we were on the ice for the whole game, we’d have a lot more opportunities to miss open nets.

It doesn’t mean you can’t tell them they’re wrong – in fact, I encourage it, as long as it’s done with a certain level of respect.

You missed that one, bud, watch the video after the game. My stick never even touched him.

But there’s always something wrong with going ballistic.

The variable that can ruin the whole relationship is players’ attempts to draw penalties, because refs take that as a personal slight, which it isn’t. The dive is one thing and the embellishment another. I’m not opposed to the latter, as sometimes you need to demonstrate your opponent is being careless with his stick – it only makes sense to try and earn your team a power play the way you try to earn a goal – but the outright dive is cheating. I realize it’s a grey area either way, but that’s the stance I take.

Auger obviously took the Burrows play personally and when the league viewed Auger’s call as an error, he took it as a diss from Alex.

Referees need to know that trying to draw a penalty is no more personal than them calling a penalty on us. In some twisted way, we’re both just doing our jobs.

My guess is the Burrows/Auger situation resulted from the lowest common denominator being involved on both ends. Both Burrows and Auger didn’t take the events that happened as people doing their jobs, but rather as personal slights.

By all logic, the league should clean this up quickly, discipline them both and be on with the next game. It’s hardly insight into the league’s major problems, but rather just two fairly unintelligent kids playing in the livingroom who had to call their mom to settle their differences.

They need to grow up and we need to move on. Most NHL refs are great.

Justin Bourne last played for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL and is currently a columnist for USA Today. He excelled with the University of Alaska Anchorage before going on to spend time in the Islanders organization with Bridgeport and Utah. His father, Bob, spent 14 years in the NHL and won four Cups with the Islanders. He will blog regularly for THN.com and you can read more of Justin's blogs at jtbourne.com. Follow Justin on Twitter.

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