Call of the Wilde: The case of the cursing ref
Published Monday, May 4, 2015 9:40AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, May 4, 2015 3:07PM EDT
It's elementary, my dear Watson... You are a referee. No one should ever know your opinions on anything. You are the man without a personality on the ice; the man no one is paying attention to. You are not the show. No one paid to see you; nor did they begin the night thinking they would learn anything about you. Your best night, my dear Watson, is when no one can remember it was you who were there at all.
But my dear Watson, you were not so elementary. You were complex and you caused the league embarrassment. It was a night when the NHL's reputation as the fourth league in America was once again well established as truth.
The Case of the Cursing Ref, if you missed Sunday night's episode watching instead Game of Thrones, is a mystery revolving around a referee who completely stopped behaving like a referee. Brad Watson took exception to an exchange Brandon Prust was having with Braydon Coburn in the first period. Prust already had two minutes for roughing and was trying to goad Coburn into retaliating and taking two as well. This is done about a thousand times per season, but Watson lost his cool because as he approached the penalty bench to talk to an already seated Prust, the video shows that he points at Prust and verbally launches into him for about 7 seconds. Prust looks away for the bulk of that time until finally he looks at him and says something that Watson takes exception to and then Prust gets an additional two minutes. The Habs night of losing their composure completely, begins with the catalyst, in the Case of the Cursing Ref, the ref referred to hence forth as my dear Watson.
After the game, Prust in a rare bit of player honesty told the media what Watson unleashed a tirade of profanity and threats. It is ugly for the NHL to be in the center of a ref's personal venom. Prust said that Watson said "you're a motherfu**er, a coward, a piece of sh** and I'm going to run you right out of the rink". Prust replied to the media after that that's the way Watson is as Watson thinks he is God.
The talking heads on Sportsnet who are the rights holders for the NHL went directly and forcefully into spin mode on national television pointing their swords at Prust for telling the hockey world how Prust had earned himself a hearing and a fine and that he was most certainly in the wrong. This is not surprising that they supported the league as they are in essence 'bought and sold' in a business partnership with the league. Their opinion is only slightly more their own than it is the league's. That they could so thoroughly not put the noose around the neck of a biased official was a lesson in the power of propaganda as we saw the powerful NHL broadcasting elite spin it hard and then watched the lemmings follow on Twitter and other media outlets. The Score put a photo of Prust's face with a baby body as an example in a tweet that they hastily removed only moments later. Wow.
The 'bought and sold' of Sportsnet suggested that Watson said nothing at all of this cussing nature, that there was no proof, and that Prust was inventing a complex series of lies - like very complex. That Prust was the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of this mystery writing carefully weaved tapestry and that Watson was merely an innocent bystander getting slandered because an unhappy hockey player lost a game and got two extra minutes for an unsportsmanlike penalty. To Sportsnet, Prust was the Machiavellian genius at hand here working a complex narrative, and my dear Watson was just poor Watson.
Don't think there isn't pressure from the league or your team when you're a broadcast partner to tell the side of the story strongly that gives your partner the upper hand. I have been on both sides of this as an independent and also as a broadcast partner with both Ottawa and Edmonton. I have gotten 1:30 AM phone calls from Glen Sather that were not pretty. In Ottawa, we used to have a saying when I did the Senators games that "we got Mlackered" meaning President Roy Mlacker was telling us what to say again and how to spin it. I have been told how to present the team in a better light when they're struggling many times. Don't be naïve. You should in truth be looking for an announcer working for the league or a team to be 'bought'. It happens all the time. I venture to say that watching that drama play out last night where an official losing his objectivity completely is not called out on national television but the player is scorned repeatedly is a perfect example of feeling that powerful tug from the powerful in New York City. It likely was not direct, but the pull is always there to sell the product for the league and to not damage the product. An honest assessment of a cussing emotional Brad Watson last night would surely damage the product.
The truth is this year has been a learning of too much about officials personal vendettas in the NHL. The former official Kerry Fraser who has a segment on TSN said that there is a book on different players and these players are treated differently than others who don't have a reputation. This is somewhat disturbing but not entirely unpredictable. It's human nature, but truthfully, not a good human nature. Why? Well, because I haven't seen that subsection in the NHL rule book where a player's style shall lead to unusual influence on a call. After all, the call is the call. It's a penalty or it isn't a penalty.
On another occasion, Sportsnet's Chantal Desjardins did an interview between the periods with Brendan Gallagher and she asked him about a non call to which Gallagher replied that the ref told him that "any other player gets that call but you Brendan". Excuse me? What? I must have missed Rule 1023 sub section 22 point A dash 3 where it is said "A player shall if it is deemed that we think he has a reputation will not be giving an obvious call that we would give every other player in the league but this said player". It was interesting to watch the code play out on this too as in speaking to Gallagher about the moment weeks later he said that he should not have said that in public and it was a heat of the moment interview in game. It was Gallagher who felt shame. No shame for the ref though in question who admitted to not following the rule book but his own set of personal bias. Why did it go in this unusual direction? Because Gallagher needs calls in the future because the power remains in the officials hands. It has been said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Try to remember NFL referees getting into personal disputes and learning of their tirades against a player or some personal beef or not officiating with the rule book in mind but with emotional thoughts on the line directed at specific individuals. Try. We are not supposed to imagine an official with any personality whatsoever. We should think of them as robots. I think of NFL refs as robots. I can't remember seeing an emotional ref against a player.
The spin on this should be 180 degrees different than the popular opinion today around the hockey world. Watson should be the one receiving the lion's share of the criticism this morning. He is a neutral. He has no opinion. He is supposed to be without personality. He is supposed to 100 percent of the time be applying the rule book and he is supposed to be 0 percent of the time not applying the rule book. That he has a personal vendetta against a player calling him a motherfu**er is completely unacceptable. That he said that he will run Prust right out of the building is even more egregious. Prust is a member of the Montreal Canadiens so Watson is in effect saying that he is going to run the Canadiens right out of the building. What if Prust is Crosby? Do we see it differently now? Is it now unacceptable to suggest that a ref would run a great player out of the game, or as Kelly Hrudey said on Sportsnet that it's okay because Prust is just a fourth liner who thinks too highly of himself.
Let's assess how this Watson moment played out overall for the Habs fortunes in this game and perhaps ultimately in this series. Before the moment, the Habs were in excellent shape leading 1-nothing and playing their best period in a while. After it, they became completely unravelled. Anyone who watches the Canadiens on a regular basis knows that the Habs are disciplined to a fault. They're rather dull actually in their always showing discipline. Many complain for more passion instead of the even temper they bring. Their coach used to be a hot head who tries now as hard as he can to control that part of him. Game two against Tampa ended up being a damn bursting of indiscipline that we have not seen in years. Interesting that the worst night of composure that I have seen from the Habs comes after an official says to a player that he's going to run him right out of the building.
I should not be able to ever, ever, ever raise a point like this - that the Habs possibly unraveled because of a ref showing a personal vendetta is not acceptable. Players get to blow up. They're in an emotional moment trying to win an important game. Their emotion is understood.
This is not however a case being made in defence of Prust's other actions in the third period. That he was so completely unnerved he tried to take out Ben Bishop, then fight Coburn, then throw an elbow pad at the Lightning bench is not acceptable. He did his team a disservice to carry on in such a blatant way. The Lightning bench was actually smiling and laughing at him after he threw the elbow pad. Stamkos threw it into the stands in an additional show of defiance. That just gives the opposition strength. Don't confuse the Brad Watson moment as a defence of Prust in the third. An observer can understand how Prust gets to that place upon learning that the referee is biased against you to the point that he is calling you a piece of sh**, but that still doesn't make it right that you have given the other team more strength by embarrassing yourself in other matters.
In sum, in the Case of the Cursing Ref, the player it is expected will be emotional, but the referee must always be neutral, and that is elementary, my dear Watson.