Referee Stephane Auger and Alex Burrows of the Vancouver Canucks talk before the game between the Canucks and Predators on Jan. 11. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
Attention, seekers of the obvious: the current brouhaha involving NHL referee Stephane Auger and Vancouver Canucks winger Alex Burrows has the potential to leave a particularly ugly stain on the league and the game.
I say “the potential” because until somebody shows me definitive proof Burrows’ accusations of bias on Auger’s behalf were correct, he deserves to be considered a decent human being who understands why bias is a blight on him and his profession. The day evidence of impropriety is found is the day I’ll unload in Auger’s direction and demand he be removed from his job.
And that’s not to say I don’t believe a handful of referees have had it out for certain teams, players, coaches or GMs over the years. There’s enough smoke that’s blown behind the scenes for enough years to know there’s at least a little fire involved in that regard.
Certainly, the NHL has to do everything within its power – and as transparently as possible – to show its customers it has honestly investigated Burrows’ allegations. But there’s another danger at play here, one that has the potential to damage the game nearly as badly as a crooked ref scandal would.
That danger is the undermining of honest officials who would sooner hand in their zebra stripes than engage a player in a game of payback. That’s arguably the worst side-effect of what Burrows had to say – and why, although I’m all for players speaking their minds to the media, this entire situation would have been best addressed away from the public eye.
Now, regardless of whether Auger is in the wrong, cynicism towards officials will only heighten and make a difficult job all the more stressful. Now, we’ll likely have websites popping up with one function: to chart all calls made by NHL officials and “decipher” which officials harbor secret hatreds toward players.
The increased attention afforded to officiating and the skepticism of it will represent a huge diversion from what we should be talking about: Not the arbiters of the game’s rulebook, but the game and its athletes.
Let me digress to make a point. When I was a strapping youngster teaching the aquatically challenged how to swim, I noticed there were essentially two types of parents in the world, and the difference between the two became crystal-clear whenever one of the kids ran down the deck too quickly, faux-kicked a field goal Charlie Brown-style, and whacked their little soft heads on the cement.
The first type of parent sees this happen and reacts as if someone has burned the Mona Lisa, flashed a group of pre-schoolers and raised taxes for all people who use both eyes on a daily basis. They rush to the child, barely able to contain their adult tears, patting down every part of the kid’s body for the slightest hint of pinched skin or a baby goose egg.
The second type of parent sees their child bounce off the deck and barely twitches. The first thing from their lips is usually said dismissively: “Oh, you’re fine.” The next phrase the kid hears is an admonishment for not listening to the lifeguards when they told them to slow down.
Guess which family’s kid usually became the better swimmer? If you said “the first type of parent,” you’re probably the first type of parent and you probably should skip the next paragraph.
If you said “the second type of parent,” congratulations – you’re right; the parents who didn’t pay too much mind to their child’s every fear and folly wound up rearing a focused, resilient little swimmer far more often than the moms and dads who did.
In the same way, I think when hockey fans lose their focus, become distracted by sensational, unverified rhetoric, and turn into Chicken Littles in full squawk, they lose and the game loses.
And that’s what is important to remember as Auger gets grilled in the court of public opinion. The more we entangle our energies in pure speculation, the less energy we have to talk about the game.
We’re forgetting the NHL has made significant strides in how it monitors officials, sending them emails that meticulously break down their performance from night to night. We’re forgetting the human element in hockey, an element that, unless we’re moving to automated officiating and nobody told me, isn’t going away today, tomorrow or 10 years from now.
But “who watches the Watchmen,” right? We have evolved/devolved to the point we prefer to squint and look sideways at somebody before we consider the facts, so the mere whiff of untoward behavior is like a cat smeared in catnip to our reactionary, Pepe Le Pew-like world.
There’s nothing wrong with eternal vigilance. And there definitely is value in ensuring the NHL never allows a Tim Donaghy-type – no matter if his motivation is the mob or personal vendettas – to wreak havoc on its integrity.
I’m just not prepared to break out my Hazmat suit and declare this patch of sports earth fully scorched. I know too many hockey officials fully worthy of their position and its responsibilities to paint them all with one nasty brush.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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