As part of Episode 3 of The Hockey Writers Podcast, I had the pleasure of chatting with former NHL official Kerry Fraser. Among the topics that came up in that exclusive one-on-one interview — which included inconsistency with the play-calling, the inexperience of NHL officials these days and a couple great stories from Fraser’s time as an NHL ref — one of the more interesting discussions was how superstar players like Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers should be dealing with NHL officials and trying to turn the lack of calls against him in his favor.
If you haven’t listened to that podcast, you can do so here. (I highly recommend it).
Lack of Calls on McDavid
Fraser was quick to admit the NHL officials are often getting it wrong when it comes to McDavid. When asked if the refs are getting a fair shake when it comes to criticism, Fraser said, “Yeah, it is. When you put on a striped jersey, you have to be prepared to take criticism.” Suggesting that the two referee system has created challenges, Fraser said, “I agree 100% with Hitch. A player of that skill level, that no one can match him stride for stride… so the only way that players can contain him is to foul him; to interfere with him illegally.”
Fraser explained that back in his day, he knew coaches would teach their players how to try and get away with obstruction and trying to contain star players like McDavid illegally without getting caught. He called it “hook on with your stick, water ski, go for a ride and drag that player back so he couldn’t get in on the forecheck.”
This is something that will happen to McDavid for the rest of his career, but it’s not something that he has no control over.
Related: 3 Ways to Fix the Oilers Power Play
Why This Is a Problem for the NHL
Fraser then went into detail discussing how Brendan Shannahan — who was instrumental in working with the league during the lockout of 2005 — helped put together a committee to see if there was a better way to play the game. With the backing of players like Mario Lemieux, who at that time, called the NHL a “garage” league where stars were not allowed to showcase their skills, it was incumbent upon the league to buy in and ensure the calls were starting to be made when it came to the expected standard going up.
For a while, that happened. Unfortunately, Fraser explained that when the officials start to slip or let the players cheat, it can take only a week before the “wild stallions” get out of control again. The NHL is constantly trying to get back to that standard and having such young, inexperienced officials doesn’t help matters. As such, players like McDavid are always going to suffer.
However, with inexperienced officials comes opportunity.
Related: Hitchcock Has the Oilers Grinding
How to Fix the McDavid Problem
Fraser admits that while this issue may never fully go away, there are things McDavid can do.
First, he needs to have a conversation with the officials. From Fraser’s perspective, “my advice to Connor would be to try and develop good discussions with the referees.”. Calling McDavid a thoughtful and humble kid who doesn’t dive, if he were to approach the referees and say, “I’m trying not to dive on these plays and embarrass you, but every time the puck comes near me or I have to make a break, I’m being held. Would you please watch a little closer.”
Fraser suggests that this tactic not only plants a seed in with the referee, but it removes the official from a situation where he might feel offended or embarrassed. Once the seed is planted, the refs, in general, will look to make more calls. Plus, if McDavid continues to stay thoughtful, where another player might have an iffy call that could go either way be ruled against them, McDavid will get the benefit of the doubt.
Can McDavid Do That?
McDavid has said publicly that he’ll never speak about the referees and the job that they have to do. The question is, does that carry over to in-game situations?
If McDavid isn’t letting it be known that he’s being fouled, this may continue to happen. As a result, part of the learning and maturation process for the Edmonton Oilers captain will be to play the game the way he does, develop a good relationship with the refs and get them in his corner.
My best guess, McDavid is already doing so.
While Hitchcock seemed happy to speak for McDavid in a post-game scrum and fans might think the world is unfair when it comes to how the opposition fouls and illegally checks McDavid, the refs, the NHL, and others are slowly getting on the same page and these fouls will decrease. That’s the good news. The bad news is that McDavid is McDavid and no one can keep up. As a result, he’s going to be fouled far more often than any other player and there’s no way everything will be called.
When that happens, Fraser believes a simple chat might do the trick.