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There was an incident in the Calgary-Vancouver game on Sunday in which the Canucks were issued an unsportsmanlike bench minor with only eight minutes left in the game and a 2-2 tie. Canucks coach Alain Vigneault was apparently unhappy with what was perceived as a missed elbow call and proceeded to stand on the bench and voice his displeasure, indicating "That was an elbow."
According to reporters and players, there was no profanity yelled and no previous warning given to the bench by the referee.
As a long-time NHL referee, you have probably had numerous instances in which a coach has given you an earful for a perceived missed call. Were there certain times during the game, or a certain way things were said (standing on the bench) that would push you towards assessing a bench minor? Would you allow more leniency to a player or a coach in that situation?
When a coach stands up on the dasher boards/players' bench and demeans an official by shouting, waving his arms or demonstrates a penalty signal in protest of a non-call (even with the absence of profanity), it is most likely that a bench penalty will be assessed by the referee, as opposed to issuing the coach a warning. This was the case on Sunday when Alain Vigneault was overzealous and theatrical in his protest of what he felt was an elbow delivered by Matt Stajan to the head of Vancouver defenceman Christopher Tanev.
Each game situation is unique, as are the personalities of the individuals involved. Working relationships are forged over time between every referee and coach; some are positive while others are just tolerable. The specific manner with which a coach voices or displays his displeasure for a referee's decision, combined with an official's tolerance level, will dictate the response and eventual outcome.
If I knew for sure, or even thought I might have erred on a call, I would be much more tolerant of a coach's protest. At a stoppage of play, I would approach the bench and admit wrongdoing in a sincere attempt to diffuse the situation and restore a level of professional decorum to avoid assessing a bench penalty.
There were times when the actions of a coach were so over the top that my only approach was to assess a bench penalty followed by a "warning" that I would remove the coach from the bench (ejection from the game) if he persisted in any further abusive conduct. Let me offer some examples, some of which appeared in my book, The Final Call.
Bryan Murray was coaching the Washington Capitals and demonstrated a very fiery personality behind the bench. Bryan was sometimes seen standing up on the dasher boards in front of his players, screaming at the referee. Coach Murray was leading the league in bench penalties. One game in the Cap Center, Bryan stood on the dasher boards and started flapping his arms in protest at me. Since bench penalties didn't appear to be altering his behavior, I thought I would attempt a different approach by initiating a conversation with the coach. When I approached Bryan, he was wired. I extended my hands with palms open in a calming gesture of peace and spoke in a direct but monotone voice. I asked that he please calm himself and get down off the bench so I might explain to him the reason for my call. Bryan Murray did as I asked.
I started the conversation by saying, "You might not agree with what I have to say but…" and explained my perspective on the play. Bryan listened thoughtfully and then very respectfully replied, "Kerry, you're right about one thing. I don't agree with your decision but thank you very much for coming over and explaining it to me." All Bryan Murray wanted was an explanation. The coach recognized that I was approachable when he demonstrated an acceptable decorum. From that night on, we established a very positive professional relationship; even when we didn't agree.
Al Arbour, coach of the NY Islanders, demonstrated tremendous discipline behind the bench. His players fed off their coach's demeanor and took very few unnecessary penalties. Arbour seldom yelled at the referee so when he did, I knew I probably had missed something. One night in the Chicago Stadium in 1983, I heard his voice just 10 minutes into the game. It gave me a wake-up call I desperately needed, because my head was clearly up my butt. I was in a total fog from the opening puck drop and couldn't seem to pull myself out of it. After the fourth penalty I assessed the visiting Islanders in the first ten minutes, Arbour stood at the open door of his players' bench and yelled at me, "Kerry, get over here!" I had such respect for him that I skated over with my head down, ashamed of my performance to this point. I felt like a little kid standing in front of the school principal. In obvious frustration, Al said, "Kerry, what the hell are you doing out here tonight?"
I responded, still with my head down, "I don't know Al. I'm really struggling tonight and don't know what's wrong with me." Finally I raised my eyes to see this coaching icon scratching his head and staring back at me with lips pressed together. Then he said, "Well, get the hell out there and try harder," as if admonishing one of his players. Like a child who had just been scolded by his father, I responded, contritely and meekly, "Okay, Al, I'll do my best."
Respect must be earned—not demanded.
Current Montreal Canadiens head coach Michel Terrien received a bench minor penalty in his first stint as coach of the Habs from me in Game Four of their Conference Semi-final series with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2002. Therrien did pretty much the same thing as Vigneault on Sunday. Michel had received a warning of sorts to cool his antics behind the bench when he was fined $30,000 by Colin Campbell for his throat-cutting gesture to Kyle McLaren of the Boston Bruins in the previous series following his elbow to Richard Zednik.
Midway through the third period of Game Four against the Canes, with the Candiens leading in the game and poised to take a commanding lead in the series I called an obvious cross-checking penalty on Stephane Quintal for blasting a Cane player into the Habs net from behind. As I stood at the referee's crease assessing the penalty, I heard Therrien yell at me from 100 feet away. As I turned, I could see the coach standing on the dasher boards. It was impossible to not see the coach impeccably dressed in a bright yellow sports jacket resembling a large bumble bee. The coach waved his arms and shouted, "Kerry, what the F_ _ _ _?"
I felt it prudent to give him a second chance to amend his method of protest so I pointed to my chest and mouthed, "Are you talking to me?" Therrien nodded his head in affirmation and then repeated himself, "Yeah, what the F_ _ _ _?"
It was a costly bench penalty for the coach to take and one which turned the game and series around. Carolina scored two goals on the ensuing two-man advantage, tied the game up and won it in overtime with a goal from my TSN colleague, Aaron Ward. Carolina won the remaining games and the series, 4-2.
Therrien is doing an excellent job this season behind the Canadiens bench and has earned the respect of his players as well as the officials for his decorum behind the bench, not to mention his more conservative dress code.
Take a lesson Alain. Bench penalties can sometimes be game changers.
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