Referees, like Dan Marouelli and Brad Watson have to earn their spot in the playoffs just like any NHL player. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)
Do you think a veteran player would ever step aside to allow a youngster to play ahead of him in the playoffs?
Not a chance.
But that is what could happen this year with NHL officials. Some veterans, who are winding down their careers, are expected to take a pass on the playoffs to allow younger referees and linesmen to work the post-season.
And the kicker is, they weren’t asked to step aside. Rather, they volunteered.
“This has never happened before,” says Stephen Walkom, the NHL’s director of officiating. “Guys who have worked the playoffs their whole career will let younger guys work ahead of them. They were not asked. They are doing it for the team. They are really helping us evolve as a team.”
Walkom won’t reveal which of the vets will take a pass on the playoffs because they were still scheduled to work games down the stretch.
The fact is, referees and linesmen are no different than the players; they work the entire regular season hoping their efforts will carry them into the playoffs. And just like the players, they are judged by their performance.
With 33 refs and 34 linesmen vying for the playoffs, there are openings for 20 refs and 20 linesmen in the first round. From there it drops to 12 and 12 in the second round; eight and eight in the third; four and four for the final.
“We want guys who are obviously performing well right now; performing well in big games,” Walkom says. “We want guys who can work well on a team, because it’s a team approach. And, as in all other years, this is a difficult decision because we have more guys than we have positions available to work in the playoffs. The guys work so hard all year and you’re always going to have, at this time of year, some disappointed team members. I think every team has that. You have some guys who worked hard to get their team to the playoffs and then don’t play at all.”
Just like a coach looking for winning line combinations and defensive pairings, Walkom says a lot goes into trying to find the right pair of refs and linesmen to work games. On-ice officials are assessed virtually every game they work.
“We want to put together a team of guys that we know will work well together; where there will be consistency from game to game because that’s what the coaches want,” Walkom says. “Now, the coaches may say we’re inconsistent because there are 12 penalties in one game and only seven in another, but the players dictate that. But we really want guys who mesh well together so that our guys are seamless within the game. We want guys who trust one another on the ice.”
Walkom says choosing the 40 officials for the playoffs is one of the toughest tasks he faces each year.
“In the end, you’re only going to have 10 percent of the guys who are happy at the end of the year,” he says.
It goes without saying certain teams like certain officials and don’t like others. So does the NHL take that into account when they hand out their assignments? On the contrary.
“The guys that we select are guys that we hope will be oblivious to the teams that are participating,” Walkom says. “You’d be surprised by the amount of that we don’t get. Historically we used to get a lot of that, when there was one referee, and the teams believed they could handicap the referee into part of their game plan. But I think there is a real trust from the teams that these guys are working to a standard.
"The teams aren’t oblivious to that now and there won’t be a difference from game to game. If one referee sees a penalty, regardless of who is playing, his arm goes up. If another ref sees the same thing, he’s going to respond the same way. The teams may not like it all the time, but I think they have come to trust the officials relative to that. There is a lot less of, ‘I don’t like somebody.’ ”
Just like a handful of names appear in the NHL’s top 10 scorers each season, there are some officials who continue to rank among the best in the NHL; the likes of Bill McCreary, Don Koharski, Kevin Pollock, Mike Hasenfratz, Don Van Massenhoven, Brad Watson, Paul Devorski and Dan O’Halloran among them. Others who have enjoyed solid years this season include Chris Rooney, Dan O’Rourke and Marc Joannette.
There is no set formula as to which officials will advance beyond the opening round.
“Sometimes they move along as a pair if they really worked well together; other times they’ll be split up depending on performance,” Walkom says. “Hypothetically, you could stay with the same guy right through to the final if you are conquering every game.
“We look at who is going to be a good combination; who will work well together…Who is going to be able to go out and facilitate and orchestrate the product on a consistent basis and be able to handle the pressure of the playoffs? Those that do it best will be able to go on.”