A press release issued by the NHL on Friday afternoon announced the "retirement" of referee Stephane Auger after 12 years with the league.
The Montreal native decided to retire at the age of 41, the league release claimed, "in order to spend more time with his wife and three children." There was no mention of a private income, recent inheritance or lottery win that would make this possible.
However, if Auger was frog-marched to the retirement line, as some of his peers suspect, he is entitled to a severance package that will allow him as much as a couple of years as a stay-at-home dad, depending on his length of service. Auger could not be reached for comment but the fact he was not given a farewell season, as many referees are, also indicates the "retirement" was not his choice.
While Brian Murphy, the president of the NHL Officials Association, declined to confirm if Auger had no say in his retirement, NHL director of officials Terry Gregson, the referee's boss, said otherwise. But it was clear that if Auger, who is due between one and two year's pay based on his 13 years of service in the professional ranks, did not retire now, the decision would have been made for him.
A referee's career depends on receiving good marks from his superiors and Auger was struggling. He was not picked to work the playoffs for at least the last two years and had only 10 playoff games in his career along with 730 regular-season games.
Gregson said Auger "took a long look" and decided to leave while he still had some control over his situation. This way, Auger can collect his severance pay while he decides on another line of work.
While Auger was not among the top half-dozen NHL referees who gain a certain fame through handling the biggest games, he was well-known to hockey fans. Unfortunately for him, it was more notoriety than fame thanks to a controversy in January, 2010 involving Vancouver Canucks forward Alexandre Burrows.
During a game between the Canucks and the Nashville Predators in which Auger was one of the referees, Burrows was given a questionable penalty. The Predators scored the game-winning goal on the power play.
After the game, Burrows accused Auger of telling him in the pre-game warmup he would pay for embarrassing the referee in a previous game. Burrows has been accused of diving to draw penalties and he said Auger was angry because he felt Burrows tricked him into calling a penalty on an opponent in the earlier game.
The predictable uproar ensued. Retired NHL referee Paul Stewart, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, wondered what all the fuss was about. He said he often warned players in subtle ways they could expect at least one marginal penalty call. But the idea was to correct bad behaviour, such as diving or the verbal abuse of the officials, rather than personal revenge.
NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell investigated Burrows' complaint and could not determine if a threat was made by Auger. No discipline was handed out to the referee but Burrows was fined $2,500 (U.S.) for making the accusation. Burrows was also accused by some of, um, embellishing his account of the conversation with Auger. However, Auger was not chosen as one of the referees to work any of the 2010 playoffs.