Our Pledge To You


NHL players, referees have a colorful relationship on the ice

Jonathan Toews talks to referee Wes McCauley during a game at the United Center. (Sun-Times File)

With 73 seconds left in regulation in a taut 2-2 game at the 2015 Winter Classic in Washington, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews was whistled for hooking by referee Francois St. Laurent.

Toews was— how to put this? — displeased.

‘‘I lifted his [bleeping] stick!’’ he shouted.

‘‘You had the stick in there, Jon,’’ St. Laurent responded.

‘‘That’s the worst [bleeping] call I’ve ever seen!’’ Toews shot back before settling into the box and muttering one of his old standbys: ‘‘What a horse[bleep] [bleeping] call.’’

St. Laurent didn’t tack on two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct. He didn’t slap Toews with a 10-minute misconduct. He didn’t toss him out of the game.

Instead, St. Laurent just smiled and skated away.

The dynamic among players, coaches and officials in hockey is unlike that in any other sport. Drop an F-bomb at home plate, and an umpire might eject you. Get in a ref’s face in football, and the flags will fly. Simply look at an official the wrong way in basketball, and you might get a technical foul. In hockey, though, the leash is incredibly long. Players bark at the refs all game and in the most colorful of language. Coaches flap and flail on the bench, spewing spittle and vitriol.

And what really sets hockey apart is that the refs dish out as much as they take. In a famous hot-mic moment last season, referee Tim Peel called the Predators’ James Neal for a dive, screaming: ‘‘[Bleep] you. You’re getting a [bleeping] penalty!’’

And during the Winter Classic this month in St. Louis, the Blues’ Ryan Reaves was called for a penalty. He yelled, ‘‘For what?’’ The ref shot back, ‘‘For a [BS] hit!’’

It always has been that way. Players curse at refs. Refs curse at players. And everyone usually calms down and has a good laugh about it later. It’s banter more than berating. And it’s the nature of hockey, a sport instilled with urgency in every moment.

‘‘It’s the aggressiveness of the game and the history of it,’’ said Kerry Fraser, who spent 30 years as an NHL referee (1980-2010). ‘‘I don’t condone it. I think there’s a better way around it, and I tried to maintain an element of decorum. . . .

‘‘But there are times you have to take charge and be authoritative. We’re all human. And when somebody’s cursing at you and in your face, you’re not going to flee. You’re going to stand your ground.’’

Players and officials quickly develop relationships, and it’s mostly collegial. During a stoppage in play, you likely will see a referee or a linesman chatting up a player — maybe warning a forward that he has been flirting with goaltender interference, maybe telling a captain he needs to calm down an overzealous rookie, maybe explaining why a call was or wasn’t made earlier in the game.

And the better a player gets to know an official, the more leeway he’s going to get.

‘‘That line’s probably different for every player,’’ Hawks forward Andrew Desjardins said. ‘‘Certain guys might get away with stuff more than other guys. It’s about earning that level of respect. If I get really mad at a ref or a linesman and I say something I really probably shouldn’t have said, I normally apologize some shifts later or in between periods. You don’t want to be on bad terms.’’

Winger Patrick Kane chirps at opponents more than referees, but even he’s gotten into it a few times.

‘‘I’ve had times where you’re yelling at a ref, and he could be yelling right back at you,’’ Kane said. ‘‘Then you kind of look at each other a couple of minutes later, and you’re laughing. It’s all good and fun.’’

The Hawks have made a concerted effort this season to tone it down. With microphones and cameras everywhere, it was a point of emphasis at the start of the season. Even coach Joel Quenneville — who famously grabbed his crotch while screaming at an official during a playoff series against the Blues in 2014 — claims to have ‘‘mellowed out in a lot of ways,’’ though you wouldn’t know it by looking at him or listening to him during games.

Another factor is that there has been an unusual spate of injuries to referees this season, thrusting a bunch of rookie officials into the action. And the lack of a relationship with those officials has kept Quenneville and his players on their toes.

Quenneville learned that lesson last February in Arizona. After a goal by Marian Hossa was overturned after a replay challenge, Quenneville went ballistic, leaping in front of his players to scream at veteran referee Marc Joanette. Quenneville eventually got a rare bench minor for his outburst — not from Joanette, who calmly had skated away, but from an inexperienced ref named Mark Lemelin.

Fraser was watching on TV.

‘‘I went, ‘Oh, my God,’ ’’ he said. ‘‘The kid wasn’t even involved in the conversation. It just wasn’t appropriate. . . . You at least want to give that player or coach the opportunity to calm down.’’

Fraser talks about calming down irate players and coaches the way an animal trainer talks about settling down a rabid dog. To defuse a situation, he would use non-threatening body language — hands out, palms up, fingers spread — and speak in soothing tones. Fraser’s cool demeanor was the exception, not the rule. And there were plenty of times when even he went off on players and coaches.

It’s hockey. You can’t always help it.

As the captain and as a tightly wound, emotional player, Toews spends as much time talking with — and sometimes screaming and cursing at — officials as anyone. He’s trying to tone it down, too. With eyes and ears everywhere in the modern NHL, it makes sense.

‘‘I still think you’d rather take the high road and talk to them like they’re human beings,’’ Toews said with a laugh. ‘‘Have a little more respect for them, and I think they’ll show the same thing for you.’’

Of course, that’s easier said than done.

‘‘I try to be nice with them,’’ center Artem Anisimov said. ‘‘But they play a big role. They can help you, or they can ruin you.’’

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com
Twitter: @marklazerus