Scott Gomez of the Montreal Canadiens fights Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning as the referees work on breaking it up. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)
“I’m not a spectator, I have a job to do.” – Veteran NHL linesman Brad Lazarowich.
It’s the most polarizing aspect of hockey. It can be electrifying or terrifying; it can bring fans to their feet or lead to outcries for its banishment.
But the reality is fighting is very much engrained in the make-up of a hockey game.
Taking up seven pages in the NHL rulebook, fighting is much more regimental and much less frequent on a nightly basis than it was even 20 years ago. Whether or not you believe it has a place in the game, there’s really a lot of work to do when one breaks out from the perspective of the linesman.
First of all, they’re looking for jerseys to be properly tied down because failure to do so results in a game misconduct, unless his opponent was ruled to be the instigator.
Secondly, linesmen keep an eye out for anything on the hands of the fighter, because if there is material below the wrist that cuts the opponent, a match penalty will ensue.
There’s a laundry list of things officials keep an eye out for during a fight – eye gouging, hair pulling, spitting. For instance, if there is an instigator and the player initiating the fight is wearing facial protection, he’ll get two minutes for instigating and another two for unsportsmanlike conduct.
And after the altercation starts to slow, the linesmen have set guidelines on what to do next.
“We call it right-arm strong, which means I go over with my right arm,” explained Lazarowich, an NHL linesman since 1986. “If I’m staring at the fight I’ll take the left guy. That way we’re not confused as to who we’re going to take. Or sometimes in the last two or three seconds you’ll yell ‘I’ll take Ottawa’ and that way we’re not taking the same guy.”
It’s quite the daunting task to step in between two willing combatants whose combined weight exceeds 400 pounds, but there is an art to calming the two sides once you’re directly involved.
After going in right-arm strong, the linesmen have to get in the faces of the fighters and immediately start communicating with them to let them know it’s over and separate them at the same time to avoid any further incident.
“I try to put my head in front of his head, so that way if there’s a sucker shot it hits me in the back of the helmet and he doesn’t take it face first,” Lazarowich explained. “It’s almost like a ballet: you grab him, you push him out and talk to him at the same time. And even if he got the s--- kicked out of him, you tell him how good he fought.”
Sometimes linesmen get in between two guys on the verge of fighting before any fists start to fly. And while this may be to the dismay of some fans, there’s a logical thought process behind keeping any unnecessary altercations off the board.
“It’s more of a fine line than people know,” Lazarowich said. “If two guys have engaged themselves and the play stops because of the fight, then you have no choice but to let them fight.
“I’m a bit of a believer that if you can stop it somewhat before it starts, you’re better off. I would hate to see a guy get hurt if I could’ve at any time stopped it. Now, it’s difficult because you get into a pushing match with 10 different players on the ice, there’s only two of you, so you have to divide your attention very quickly. ‘I need to go to this guy because he’s the most aggressive person’ or ‘I need to go to this guy because he’s sort of the disturber.’ ”
All in all officials, for the most part, think fighting is a part of the game that keeps a fragile order from spiraling out of control. Lazarowich noted the “posturing” that goes on during faceoffs between two players, or how injured fighters might lineup to their counterparts and tell them they won’t be fighting that night because of a hand or arm injury.
“I think if you take it out and say you’re not allowed to fight, I think you’re taking away the right of athletes,” Lazarowich said. “It’s a very contact sport in a confined area. You’re not like football where you get hit and fall out of bounds; hockey just goes and goes. If the guy shoots on goal in hockey we don’t stop and reset.
“If you take out fighting you’re going to increase stick work, you’re going to increase the guy who goes around and runs guys and late hits and does stupid punches to the face, knowing that if he fights a guy, the other guy’s going to be gone. You’re going to get way more turtling. I’m not a Don Cherry here, but I don’t see what good will come of taking fighting out of the game.
“I’ve been around this game long enough that if you take it out stick work would increase for sure, that’s a guarantee. Because I can’t fight you, so now I’ll just slash you.
“I don’t want fighting totally out of the game because it’ll increase other parts of the game I don’t think are necessary.”
A Ref's Life will return April 15.
A Ref's Life is a look at the world of officiating from the NHL level down through to the minor league level. We'll talk to different referees from all levels of the game, getting a first-hand perspective of the different aspects of the profession. A Ref's Life will appear bi-weekly through the NHL season.
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