It was like a bad memory coming back to haunt and effect, years and years after the original incident took place. Just when you thought you had moved away from having to dwell on such malignancies, another incident occurs that juts that past experience right back into your train of thought.
Yet the bad memory, the horrific moment in question, had only happened a few months previously. The déjà vu moment was something entirely different, but the outcome from a higher source was completely the same.
Lets jump first to Calgary, Alberta and a game between the Flames and the Minnesota Wild from March 2009. The Flames had a goal waved off not once, but twice in a matter of seconds:
Hopefully, you haven't let bias against the Flames (and yes, some Lightning fans are childishly holding a grudge against the team we defeated in the 2004 Cup Final) to wipe away the befuddlement of the calls during the above video clip. Two goals scored, two goals waved off – all on a technicality that was being applied for a moment. Not just a technicality, but a misinterpreted technicality (for more on this one, check out Five Hole Fanatics complete story).
At the same time, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with the Tampa Bay Lightning? Before I can answer that, I need to cite vice president and director of officiating Stephen Walkom and his reaction to the above calls:
"It was a tough call and a ballsy call, but it was the right call -- a great call," an emphatic Walkom told the Sun. "Our guys are the first to step up if they do make a mistake. I think Mick McGeough showed that years ago. But if they haven't made an error, they shouldn't be chastised for it."
This was the painful moment, this was where the bad memory stormed in and unleashed hell like the Roman army, laying waste to the Germanic tribes at the beginning of the film Gladiator.
I'd seen this before, I'd seen this exact arrogant defense of a referee instead of an admission of a screw-up: Where an indefensible mistake was simply brushed off and praised.
Who can recall the December 2008 game between the Lightning and the Colorado Avalanche? Who can recall how that game ended?
Heartbreaking loss… No, wait, that wasn't a standard loss (and to Avs fans, that was a great game even if I have issues about how it ended). That was a loss by a decision. A subjective interpretation of not just rules but physical actions as they happened. An interpretation, as it was, that was so botched that only the legally blind and developmentally challenged should be allowed any leeway for making such a mistake.
And yet the true pain in that memory was rendered by Walkom's day-later defense:
Stephen Walkom, the NHL’s director of officiating, said the ruling that Lightning goaltender Mike Smith deliberately threw his stick to disrupt Milan Hejduk’s shootout attempt on Thursday was the correct call.
"It was a very tough call. It was a gutsy call. It was a call that was made in an instant, and I support the call," Walkom said.
Welcome to Club Two-Minutes: Where solidarity between referees trumps all notions of responsibility. Where an admission of a mistake is akin to high treason.
Can you remember the last time the NHL admitted to a mistake? I'm not saying players who were there remembering and suggesting the wrong call was made, I'm not saying teams themselves, I am also not talking about league-decisions regarding administration. I'm talking about on-ice, game-calling mistakes?
Can you remember the last time a referee was disciplined for a botch-up? Can you remember the last time a ref was held accountable for his botch-up that effected the outcome of a game? Or from having questionable personal circumstances drive play-call decisions?
Let me go back to the Flames incident for a second and cite my friend (and a former blogging partner) Resolute's diary at From the Rink on the altercation:
Interestingly, according to Fan960 following the game, Flames' associate coach Jim Playfair said that Fraser told him at the start of the third that Furlatt had been having a conversation with Glencross throughout the game about his standing in the crease, which raises questions about whether the referee made the call based on his issue with a player rather than the play. Fraser was also said to have disagreed with the call, and made sure that the officials came out onto the ice first, rather than hiding in the tunnels as they often do when they draw the ire of the fans, so that Furlatt could do a "lap of honour" prior to the third. i.e.: so that the crowd could let him know what they thought of the job he was doing. When Furlatt's own officiating partner won't stand up for him, that says something.
If what the radio report says is true, it's nice to see some internal backlash for a botched-call, but it further compounds the idea of the solidarity-first front. If Kerry Fraser -- an equally respected and reviled referee -- has a problem with things, why hasn't the league taken action? Is self-policing the only way any ref is held responsible? Even if it's just cat-calling from the fans that serve as that policing?
I mean, you can give refs the ultra-wide berth like Rory Boylon has in this piece from The Hockey News last month, saying that refs have a tough job and that they have to deal with so much crap as is... But with such banalities, it overlooks so much complacency that we see year after year with rule-enforcement that it's mock-worthy before noteworthy.
Back to my original question: when was the last time the league held an on-ice official accountable? I did a Google web search on this (keywords were "NHL, "referee fined") and the first and only instance I could find for the league was from 1995 and involved a game between the New York Rangers and the Quebec Nordiques (which should give you some perspective on how long ago that was). Follow it up with other variations of the search terms and you will see a peppering of listings for news stories regarding the NBA, the English Premiere League, the NFL... But not the NHL. Oh, sure, NHL related stories come up but it's usually a player or a coach being fined for questioning or berating an on-ice official.
The fact is that the NHL would sooner change itself instead of expecting proper and consistent rule-enforcement from it's refs and linesmen. It would sooner cite tradition and heritage as reason for the closed-door elitism between on-ice officials than admit mistakes and failings.
Not all mistakes are as glaring as those that I have cited, and not every mistake is defended by Stephan Walkom as "ballsy" or "gutsy" in ridiculous fashion... But there must be some level of accountability when it comes to incidents like these where indefensible bad calls happen. Selective interpretation and misinterpretation of the rules tend to be a problem every season with the National Hockey League. Like a bad memory, they linger for the duration of the recollection and beyond. It's only permitted to do so because there has been no acceptable closure of the malicious incident in the first place.
Stephan Walkom might paint calls as "gutsy" or "ballsy", but in effect he is painting Club Two-Minutes as above the rules they are supposed to be stewards of, and beyond the scope of reality.