Rats and Refs: Selecting for Jerks

A cornered rat will invariably launch itself at its tormenter. If that seems like bizarre behaviour, consider what would have happened to those rats through history who opted to play dead as the shadow of the frying pan loomed over them. Those genetics didn’t go far.

The attack-rat is a creature for which humans have unwittingly selected very strongly.
Referees rarely bite or scratch (though doubtless some are rabid), but we’ve selected for certain referee attributes no less strongly through the frying pan of verbal abuse. They are as follows:

1.    A love of hockey
2.    A love of conflict

The ones who survive possess some combination of these traits.

I began reffing around the same time as a shy kid who had an unfortunate tendency to perform pirouettes on the ice. One day he pirouetted a little too flamboyantly on front of an already-irritable coach, and that was more or less the end of him. I think he may have been literally eaten alive.

Something similar, if somewhat less dramatic, occurred to many of my officiating colleagues in those early years. Like an enormous litter of rats, we were inevitably pruned by natural selection until many of those remaining were the kind of rats that would immediately go for the eyes. You know, jerks.

I worked for years with a guy who was forever being “accidentally” punched in scrums and hit with clearing attempts. Conflict seemed to follow him around the ice like a lost puppy. There was something intangible about the calls he made and how he made them that was indifferent to – or outright encouraged – a “throw all the water bottles on the ice” kind of rage (which leads one to believe that John Tortorella may have been formed through an unfortunate string of interactions with this kind of official early in life).

We were working a two-referee system in a Midget house game one evening and by the second period my rage-inspiring partner, Larry, had already tossed both coaches. In other words, a typical Tuesday night. Occupying my attention, however, was the impending clash between Larry and one of the players, an oversized and awkward defenceman with a frequently-errant stick. The two had been chirping at each other all game and I could see the explosion coming a mile away, like Matt Cooke barreling in for a headshot.

The big moment came late in the third as the big defenceman, his team down by a goal, wrestled with a falling opponent in the corner. The way he went down suggested strongly that the big defenceman had brought his feet out from under him. It was my end and thus my call, but I hadn’t seen the actual trip and I don’t like making borderline calls in close games so I was prepared to let it go.

Enter Larry.

[Whistle sounds]

“#43! Trip!” shouts Larry, who has moved in from the blueline to park himself directly in the path of the big defenceman.

Angry words are almost invariably thrown at officials by players making the trip to the penalty box, but referees are strongly encouraged to circle behind their victims as they shuffle across the ice so as not to present an additional red armband-wearing target to an angry bull. Better to avoid offering oneself as the visual representation of everything that is unjust with the world. Of course, that’s if conflict-minimization is your goal.

Larry isn’t into that conflict-minimization crap.

He skates directly in front of the seething defenceman all the way to the penalty box. Apparently unsatisfied with the quantity of rage already produced, he follows up:

“Keep your stick on the ice and it won’t be a penalty next time!”

I almost feel badly for the kid at this point, because few 15 year olds have that kind of self-control. Sure enough, he snaps.

“That was a bullshit call, ref!”

“An extra two!” shouts Larry, matching the kid in both tone and volume.

“For what?! You suck!”

“You’re gone!” pronounces Larry, gesturing emphatically toward the front door of the arena.
After the game, Larry speculated briefly about why that one kid didn’t like him so much.

“Well, I slept with his mother”, he says.

“You don’t say.”

“Yeah. She was married at the time. I don’t think the kid liked that.”

“I think that’s certainly possible, Larry.”

Not every referee has been romantically involved with your mother, but these are the kinds of conflict-driven individuals who are ideally suited to survive the crucible of hockey officiating, with its crushing abuse. So the next time your referee is a jerk, may I gently remind you that it’s your own damn fault.