The chant rose quickly and soon thundered throughout the arena from section to section. Fans in full tribal attire, reflecting their affection for the home team, maintained the three-word chorus for a long time.
“Ref you suck, ref you suck,” they chanted until the words began colliding with the echoes generated by the first wave of the cry. It slapped the glass near the ice, rose to the ceiling, and careened like a wayward car from person to person.
The targets of that chant had heard it before many times. That’s the life of a National Hockey League referee. That used to be the life of Rob Martell.
Martell heard those words, plus unprintable others, during his 20 years in the NHL. Now, he said the off-ice critics are even more vocal. This was especially true during the run to the Stanley Cup.
“I hate to say back in the day, but you used to get the benefit of the doubt because of the human element,” said Martell. “In a lot of ways. TR he human element was taken out of (officiating) and it’s hard.”
Martell is from the Canadian city of Winnipeg, where hockey was an organic component of life. He worked his way as a referee to the NHL in 1996 and skated with the whistle until January 2016, when he retired after his 1000th game officiated. He remains connected to the game developing young referees with USA Hockey, and continues to remain relevant in officiating circles.
Many fans would scoff at that, considering the amount of turmoil and controversy embroiled among NHL officiating recently.
That uptick has increased in the playoffs, especially as reviews and blown calls are magnified with instant replay widely available.
However, Martell thinks that a combined ignorance of officiating and the excess use of replay for fans magnifies a problem that doesn't need to exist.
“Something will happen and (the) coach will drop his head and he’s looking down at the monitor,’ said Martell. “The players will do it too. If it was legit…”
Martell nodded his head, mimicking what a coach would do if the call seemed fair.
“If it was something he didn't like he would start yelling,” he said. “But he didn't know until he looked at it. That’s the downside to it.”
The cameras from seemingly every position around the ice don’t help.
“People get such good angles, (fans) see everything,” Martell said. “Nothing gets past (them). There’s 30 cameras that are looking at this guy or that guy, and nothing gets missed really. That’s the problem, everyone sees those (looks).”
The problem, Martell insisted, is that these looks are slowed down and magnify a potential missed call that is impossible to see at full speed.
“Everybody is an expert,” he said. “My biggest pet peeve is when (TV analysts) go ‘We looked at it seven or eight times and it clearly shows one thing or another.’ Well if it was clear, why did you look at it seven or eight times? In slow motion? It’s the nature of the beast. The speed of the game, you can’t have it both ways.”
Martell referenced recent plays in the postseason that were criticized on social media and on television networks after the game. In the second game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Boston Bruins, a potential missed call shifted the game. Brad Marchand, a forward for the Bruins, skated in on a breakaway and was hooked by Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman. The call was not made.
“Marchand was on that breakaway, and he got hooked. (A) legitimate hook,” Martell said. “But the only reason it didn't get called was (that) it was off a face-off.”
Martell said the natural speed of the game and the hectic action following a face-off often work against clarity when making a call.
“It was a bang-bang play,” he said. “What happens on a face-off is that the refs are lined up at center ice, the linesman are at the blue lines. Face-off happens… now the referee is chasing him, like in the old days.”
Martell said he focused on the position of the referee, something fans don’t ordinarily consider.
“So if you look at that video,” Martell started, “everybody cues in on the hands, and where (Stralman) gets (Marchand) and such. ‘Ah, it was an obvious penalty, how did they miss that?’ Well if you look at the big picture, the referee is chasing, he's about 20 feet behind, looking over Marchand’s shoulder. All he sees is the guy reaching in and it looks like (Stralman) lifts the stick, so he doesn't give him a call.”
Controversy accompanied many calls in the series between the Lightning and Bruins, who meet several times each year as Atlantic Division rivals. But the rage over officiating continued in the next round, the Eastern Conference Semifinals, when the Lightning met the Washington Capitals.
A high-sticking call against Washington forward TJ Oshie proved to be wrong when the replay showed that a puck hit Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman.
“They’re beating (the refs) up over that, but the stick is in the vicinity,” Martell said. “When they show the replay, they don’t show it at real time, they just show it slowed down. The puck hits (Hedman) and the stick goes by his face, but in real time, and one (view) only, it looks like a high stick. (The refs) talked about it, they did everything that they can do to come to a decision.”
Try explaining that to a coach who has watched the replay on big scoreboard or on the tablet kept on the bench.
“When you get it wrong, the replay just kills you,” he said. ”That’s part of the issue nowadays.”
Martell added that reviews have taken some of the pace out of the game.
“Replays are good, but look what happened with the offside (reviews).,” he said. “The beauty of hockey is the speed, intensity, pace. You can go five or six minutes sometimes without a whistle. If you're going to review all of these things, like a puck hitting a guy instead of a stick (such as the Hedman case), that happens… out of 1,200 games a year, it might happen twice. Is that really what you want to do? Slow the game down?”
Sometimes that review can help. During a game between the Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round, Washington goalie Braden Holtby appeared to have made a save on a ___ shot. It was close enough to look like a goal or a save, and nobody could tell. Especially the ref sitting a few feet away, with one, fast-paced glance at it.
The call on the ice was the eventual decision. No goal.
“Holtby, when he made that one save, when the puck was on the line… you could take all kind of CSI moments but you can’t see it,” Martell said. “You can say ‘I think it’s in’ but you can’t do that. You can’t make that call. There’s no winning in those situations. You can’t guess.”
Those reviews is one of many Martell insists is slowing down hockey, especially the always controversial, seemingly never-satisfying goalie interference reviews. He referenced the old skate-in-the-crease rule from when he began in the league as a similar situation.
“Anyone from Buffalo that is a hockey fan would be very proficient in talking about the crease rule back in those days,” he said. “A foot in the crease… the idea behind it was to keep players out of the crease. That came back and bit (the NHL) in the a— a little bit.”
In recent years, goaltender interference became reviewable for goals, “The idea being the goalie should be allowed to play inside the blue paint,” Martell said. However, the league was not very streamlined with that process.
“(The league) put it in the hands of the officials to look at it on the screen,” Martell added, “but they kind of dropped the ball a little bit with those little tablets. They weren't very good.”
Now, the rule changes the NHL put in place a few weeks ago took the power away from the referees on the ice. The final call rests with the hockey operations staff in Toronto.
“We don’t have control as the referee,” Martell said. “We have the headset on, looking down at the tablet, and we’re talking with Toronto. Their technician is taking us through the replays. We don’t always see the (angle) they show at home until later in the process. I don’t know what the answer is to streamline that process a little bit, but (the league) is going to Toronto now. They make all the decisions. The referees still get on the headsets, they look at the play and they talk the guys in Toronto through it.”
Even with the power gone, Martell knows from experience that pleasing people will never be an option.
“It’s all based on your opinion or alliance to a particular team,” he said. “We don’t care who wins. We really don’t. We’re not out to get a particular team. You don’t have time to think about (biased calls) because things are happening so fast, you have to react. You start thinking, that’s when more mistakes are made. All these conspiracy theories about certain teams and certain officials…” Martell paused and rolled his eyes.
Part of that distrust and frustration, Martell said, lies within the rule book, and within the decisions made by the owners and general managers.
“Referees are the scapegoats,” he said. “They’re the guys that take the hits all the time, but the league and the owners decide how the rules are applied. They don’t change rules that much, (and) when they do change them it’s more the application, it’s not the rule itself. Every general manager likes a new rule until it gets called on them, and every owner. They all love it until it happens to them. Now they're mad and now it’s a bad rule.”
Going into the 2017-2018 season, the NHL officially decided to call slashing in a more tightly thought out manner. That meant even more borderline plays were to be called, no questions asked.
“Last year it was the slashing, and (the NHL) made an adjustment and they've cut down on that,” Martell said. “What happens with that now is that you take the slashing away, and you get announcers and guys complaining about these ticky-tack slashing penalties because they slashed a guy in the gloves. Well, you can’t have it both ways. So now (players are) actually cross-checking. The NHL doesn't want (those penalties called), they want that intensity, aggressiveness, physicality.”
In one way, Martell is right. If every penalty was called, hockey would be slowed down and frustrating to watch. Plenty of borderline calls are left alone. The speed of hockey, Martell insisted, is what gives the sport its best attributes. Sometimes, though, it can cause issues with injuries and officiating.
“Because they took away a lot of the holding and the hooking and stuff, the speed is so much faster, and these guys have these collisions at such top speeds,” he said. “Guys get hurt because of it. It’s even faster than (my last years). It makes it that much more difficult to be an official because you're spending half your time trying to get out of the way. These guys are going 1000 miles an hour and they don’t give two s—ts about if you're in their way. They'll just run you over. That happens, and that’s how (calls) gets missed as well.”
He stressed that referees really do care about getting calls right, and keeping the game called correctly.
“I used to hear all the time as well, ‘They’re not going to overrule their own call.’ That is not how we think,” Martell said. “We want to get the right call. The simplest answer is that we want to get it right. I have no problem reversing my call once I see something that gives me information that I didn't have previously. That’s how officiating works in general. You take all the information you get and apply it.”
Just like anything else in hockey, mistakes are made. “If you take the human element out of it… that’s what sports is really about,” Martell said. “I don’t know what the answer is (to fix reviews). You can beat it to death with replays and reviews, but that’s not what hockey is.”
“There are three teams out there,” he suggested. “If we make the fewest mistakes out of any of the teams on the ice tonight, we’re going to have a good night. Hockey is a game of mistakes. Mistakes are going to be made every single night. If there aren't mistakes made, (the score) is 0-0 and it’s a pretty boring game. The analysts break down goals, they’ll say “Oh look, so and so got turned here, he went the wrong way, he stepped up when he shouldn't have,’ and things like that. Those are all mistakes. When referees make (mistakes) they’re magnified. It’s like being a goaltender.”
Even without those mistakes, the refs can’t win. Even with that, Martell still has a humor shared amongst many refs. It’s almost required when you have arenas and stadiums full of rabid fans jeering you.
“One side is going to be mad at you, depending on how it goes,” Martell said with a laugh.
At least in retirement, Martell won’t face many chants coming his way. That will be saved for the next on-ice call, and the one side that doesn't agree.