Of course, officials shouldn’t go looking for penalties to call. Just observe, don’t infer. There are too many cases where referees are reacting to a player falling to the ice or reaching for his face rather than to the high stick that may or may not have come up. Just because a guy goes down doesn’t mean there was a penalty.
Being a referee is a very tough job, and I think they do good work in a very demanding environment. They have to make split-second judgment calls in front of thousands of very partisan fans – millions, if you include television.
It’s a fast game, and players are smart enough to know how to take advantage when the refs aren’t looking. Refs are never going to catch everything. But if officials were allowed a bit more discretion on calls, as they once were, I believe a lot of the silliness that sometimes occurs on the ice could be taken out of the game.
If an agitator goes after a skilled player, then, according to the code I played under, there was always someone waiting to even the score. In today’s game, the lines are blurred, the agitator turtles when justice comes calling, and suddenly the victim’s team is shorthanded and the agitator is on the bench laughing while his team goes on the power play. In other words, this arrangement rewards injustice.
Not long ago, a ref might have looked the other way when the agitator got his due. That may have been a very inexact form of justice, but it did keep the game cleaner.
It works the other way, too. Sure, there are things the refs need to get rid of. But there are other things they should keep their hands off. Specifically, there has been a lot of attention paid lately to big open-ice hits that have left guys injured. No one wants to see anyone lying injured on the ice, whether he’s a teammate or an opponent. But if it was a clean hit, it was a clean hit, and the officials need to let them play on.
You can’t penalize guys for unfortunate outcomes, and you certainly shouldn’t suspend anyone on those grounds either. After all, he was playing by the rules. We need to allow our referees to use that common sense and judgment. They are not robots and will never be perfect, but I would prefer to give some rope to a well-trained official and let him use his discretion when situations require it.
I began this chapter by talking about how the game never really changes, and ended by talking about how I would change it. But I’m not advocating any radical overhaul or any bold experiments. Really, what I have in mind is what the game has always been. As a fan of the game, what I want to see on the ice is what I saw when I was on it myself.
I’d like to see a game where our referees are allowed discretion. I’d like to see a game where barriers exist to allow for greater skill development and to protect player safety. And I’d like to see a game where respect dictates that blindside hits and hitting from behind are not longer accepted.
That’s the way hockey should be played. When guys are playing with passion, you see what the game is really about. Players don’t get paid a salary in the playoffs – just a very small bonus for getting there. And look how much more intensely they compete. Players don’t get paid to suit up for the Olympics or other international tournaments, yet that is often where they play their best hockey. They don’t do what they do in order to get rich. They do it because they love it, and they do it the way they do it because that is just how the game is meant to be played.
The creativity, the competitiveness, the physical battles, maybe even the fighting – that’s the game at its best. We just have to get out of the way. While the game does change in small, unimportant ways, I’ve come to realize that no owner, no hockey executive, and no player is bigger than the game itself. Eras come and go, yet the game always manages to move forward. That is a testament to the integrity of the game itself, and to the passion of the people who love it, whether they are on the ice or off it.
Let’s keep it that way.
Excerpted from Orr: My Story. Copyright © 2013 Bobby Orr. Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved. Hardcover and ePub editions of Orr: My Story will be available in stores and online Oct. 15.