[Full Disclosure: I've voluntarily written game summaries and helped out with some of the other UNB Varsity Reds sports information stuff for several years, but effective this morning that is no longer the case. I've decided that life would be a little easier and tidier if I was just a "media" person wearing a few less hats. There should be no confusion that what I write, say on the air, or post on social media is solely my opinion and does not represent UNB or the Varsity Reds.]
Like many, and probably most, of the over 2000 fans who were at the Saint Mary's – UNB men's hockey game last night I'm still bothered about what happened on the ice. What started out as a pretty good hockey game turned into what we call a shit show back where I grew up. (I'm going to break a golden rule now, so forgive me. I'm going to openly discuss the officiating.) The referee called out an extraordinary number of penalties for a game that was being played at a high tempo by two skilled teams and was not chippy or overly physical. His calls effectively killed most of the flow on the ice and the entertainment value for the paying patrons, the same folks whose ticket revenue compensates the only paid people on the ice – the officials.
Incredibly, the last eight penalties in the game, from the middle of the second period to the end of the third, were all called against one team. Twice in the third period that team was down two men, and what was a tie game at the start of the third period turned into a 4-3 victory for SMU. So UNB lost. Boo hoo you might be thinking – when UNB loses there must be some conspiracy afoot. You might also be thinking my opinion on the game is biased because of my previous affiliation with the Varsity Reds. Fair comment. I will point out I was helping to broadcast the game last night for CHSR-FM, and anyone who has done any broadcasting or covered sports for print or other media will tell you that you tend to force yourself to be as objective as possible covering the game to do your job properly. But just bear with me.
I don't want to get into a long debate on judging the worthiness of each of the calls and non-calls last night. Hockey is a fast sport, with stuff happening all over the ice as the two teams compete for position and the puck, and if you called the game strictly by the book we'd probably never see any five-on-five play. And that's only the stuff you see. So officials tend to be subjective, and the ones we like (and don't notice) call an even game for both teams. Some referees might be stricter than others on calls like holding or interference, but as long as they're consistent the players, coaches and fans are all happy (or mostly happy). Just like umpires and the strike zone in baseball.
Last night, after a fairly even first period, and with all due respect to a tired Saint Mary's team, UNB dominated the second and third period. When even strength. Despite being shorthanded four times in the second period and four times in the third period the V-Reds outshot the Huskies 28-12 in the final forty minutes. SMU scored three times on six shots on those eight power plays. So you can see that the power plays were decisive in deciding the outcome of the game.
If UNB was clearly the much less disciplined team in the game, then you'd chalk it up as a important lesson. But they weren't. Not nine penalties less disciplined. There were some deserved penalty calls for sure, but there were some debatable calls as well against UNB that didn't look any different than similar infractions by Huskies players that weren't called. Thus the frustration.
The reaction by the fans at the Aitken University Centre was unprecedented. Fans in Fredericton are well known as being pretty mellow and laid back, as well as being the largest regular crowds for CIS hockey. However last night was the first time I've ever seen fans throw debris on the ice (and I've been going to games there since the early 1980's). Last night was also the first time I've ever heard fans at the AUC start a “we want a ref” chant. And it was loud. Maybe that's normal in other rinks, but not in the AUC.
So I've hopefully set the scene. Here's the crux of my frustration: no one involved in the game – players, coaches or athletics staff – is allowed to critique, evaluate or comment on the officiating in any game under threat of fines or suspensions from the AUS. Apparently this is supposed to be good sportsmanship, but we are all allowed to voice opinions about coaches or players without ramifications. We pay the officials, but cannot evaluate their work performance.
After the game the assembled media asked UNB's Colby Pridham, a former captain at Saint Mary's, about the Varsity Reds getting nine straight penalty calls. His answer? “No comment.” UNB head coach Gardiner MacDougall was asked the same question. His quiet reply was, “When we’re not happy with our Premier, we can talk about him. If we’re not happy about our Prime Minister, we can talk about him. But I have no comment, unfortunately.”
This is not the first time there's been controversy between this particular referee and UNB. I'm not going to get into an itemized list of grievances going back several years. I've seen similarly inconsistent game management in recent years involving the same ref in games played in the St. Thomas' rink. Yet there is no apparent recourse, even for the AUS. As I understand it, officials come under the authority of the provincial hockey organizations so there is little the conference can do.
Bottom line, in my opinion the level of officiating in the AUS is not up to the calibre of the play on the ice. The games keep getting better, but the officiating doesn't. And how can you solve the problem if the stakeholders are not allowed to talk about it? And how fair is to the fans in the biggest hockey market in the CIS? And from what I hear, this is not a problem unique to Fredericton.
It wasn't always this way. When AHL hockey was still played in the Maritimes we'd see the up and coming young officials work many AUS games. As a fan and a broadcaster you loved them, and some of those guys are now working the NHL (well, not right now of course). I understand there's a shortage of young referees out there, but you would think that Hockey Canada would like to see potential pro refs working the top level of amateur hockey in the country?
I've said enough. I don't have a magic solution to offer, but I believe we could start by having on-ice officials subject to some sort of evaluation by the AUS coaches' association and the conference. Fans pay good money to watch the players on the ice, not the officials, and they shouldn't come away from a game feeling cheated.