Friday, January 25, 2013

Hockey & Craptastic Refs

Funny how this blog's title references hockey and yet I very rarely mention hockey in my posts, huh? That is going to change right now:

HOCKEY. I love it. Especially during games like the one I had the pleasure of watching last night.  My son's JV team has been struggling all season.  They started out strong with four wins in a row, then sputtered, losses piled up, the team seemed to have forgotten how to play together or what positions were, how to catch a pass, how to ice the puck, how not to screen your own goalie. Morale dropped and every game became painful to watch.

Last night our team was taking on The Ponies, a team that had beaten our boys 9-1 in the last meeting.  Optimism was not very high in the stands, but still, the hockey moms and dads showed up, ready to cheer for our boys, win or lose.  And cheer we did! The team that won four straight games at the beginning of season suddenly reappeared on the ice.  The passes were crisp, the boys' feet were going, going, going, positions were remembered, players moved on the ice in sync with one another, the opposing goalie was pressured and peppered with shots - it was gorgeous.  And then came the refs....

Every parent at one point or another feels that their kids' team gets screwed by poor reffing or one-sided reffing or blind refs or refs who should be "home-town" but who aren't or "home-town" refs handing the game to the home-town team.  It happens all the time, I know. But seriously, I swear, I haven't watched a properly ref'd game since during last year's season when our Bantam A team played the Bantam A team from the other "rich" suburb, which is despised more than our supposedly "rich" suburb, so since the refs hated both teams equally, the game was actually ref'd pretty fairly. That was not our experience last night.

We, like all hockey teams, have a few kids who tend to get more required two minute breaks in the little special glassed-in box than other players - it is just how it goes with a sport like hockey.  Sometimes those kids really deserve the time out but sometimes one can understand why they did what they did that got them tossed.  Last night, we watched as Pony player after Pony player cheap-shot our kids right in front of the refs and were ignored.  At one point, an opposing player literally tackled our goalie, crashing him to the ground so hard that our goalie was very slow to get up, so slow that the EMT actually went out onto the ice to check on him. Did that Pony player get tossed into the box? Nope. But one of our kids did. Why? I have no idea. In fact, when one of our kids got tossed, another one asked the ref why that kid was getting a penalty, so the ref threw the questioner into the box with a 10 minute game misconduct penalty.  That was how it went all night long: the refs ignoring the other team's infractions and tossing our kids liberally, in what seemed an attempt to give the game to the opposing team.

Whatever the refs were up to with their plan, our boys were having none of it.  Battling through three or four three on five penalty kills, getting beat up by the other team, and a penalty about every three minutes of every  period, they allowed no goals through three full periods of play.  The goalie who was crushed in the second period finally got up, shook himself and continued to play, playing better than he'd played in a long time, and definitely earning his shut-out.

Hockey parents are a different breed. I don't know if it's because of the amount of time we have to spend in refrigerated arenas from the time our kids begin hockey (in Minnesota, usually around age 4) until they reach college or if it's just that hockey is an aggressive sport which in turn causes the parents to be more vocal than say, swimmer parents (I am definitely one of the loudest swim parents in the clubs in which we belong), and quite excitable.  Last night, with the way the refs were calling the game so completely one-sided, the hockey parents came out in full force.  Is it wrong to yell at a ref? Yes. Is it wrong to yell at a ref who is allowing the play to become dangerously rough and out-of-hand and who is calling the game completely one-sided to the point that the team getting away with illegal hits/play know they aren't getting called and the team getting called on everything decides that it doesn't matter since they'll be tossed anyway so that instead of a game, it becomes an all-out brawl on skates? No. I don't think that is wrong at all.  I often wonder what role the referees played with the tragic hit on Jack Jablonski last year that resulted in Jack being unable to walk ever again? Did the refs have the mentality of "Let 'em play" or were they calling one side more than the other and allowing frustration and anger to boil over into violent play that night?

The whole time following the Jablonski tragedy, the focus was put on the players, the coaches and the parents.  The refs were not brought into the equation.  Why not? Out of all the people in an arena during a hockey game, the refs have the most power to control a game.  Yet time and again, they fail in their duties to make fair calls, to set the control early in the game, to show both teams that violent play will not be tolerated.  Instead, they ignore all but the most egregious of hits (and, sometimes, that all depends on which team they've decided to call that night), putting kids in danger from some sort of ridiculous bias that infiltrates their calls.  Who supervises refs? Where is MN Hockey in their oversight of refs?  Are refs sanctioned when they allow play to continue even when it is obvious to all watching that every hit is moving toward a hit that will put another kid in a wheelchair?  Not that I know of.

I'm not advocating taking hitting out of hockey.  In fact, I thought it was ridiculous when Minnesota Hockey changed the rule on checking from Peewees to Bantams.  (If anything, they should move it all the way to Squirts - at least at Squirt level the inexperienced players can't hurt each other as much - they're all small at that age - as compared to the size disparity between boys once the kids hit Bantams.) What I am saying is that the refs have a responsibility to the players to not only call penalties fairly, but to remember that if someone gets hurt on their ice due to the lack of calls or one-sided calls, that kid's blood is on their hands.

Back to last night's game. One positive of the poor reffing: our boys not only remembered how "to play like they play when they really play" (Thanks, Dennis Green, former Vikings coach), but they also overcame the team that schooled them the last time while also overcoming refs intent upon giving the opposition every opportunity possible to score.  That's a win of which they can be proud.  They overcame adversity, pulled together, worked as a team, and got 'er done.

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