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In the closing minutes of the second period of Game 4 between Pittsburgh and Columbus there were the remnants of two broken sticks behind the Pittsburgh net. The official in that zone didn't pick up any of the pieces even when the play went deep in the Columbus end. I know he has other responsibilities, but it would only take a couple seconds to gather the sticks up and remove them from play. I've seen other times where a ref does pick up a broken stick while the game is still in play and dumps it to the nearest player's bench. So why do broken sticks sometimes get picked up but not other times? Personal choice or something else going on?
Louis Frlan III
You are correct in your assertion that the ref has other (more important) responsibilities with play in progress; particularly to watch for the presence of a penalty infraction; which by the way I would like to see called more consistently! If any debris (broken stick) or lost equipment (glove, helmet) can be easily accessed, most refs will pick up the obstacle(s) and discard them or return them to the player's bench or penalty box as they pass by in the normal flow of action. I did this whenever I was able to do it "safely".
An objective of every referee is to sustain game flow. In picking up debris I applied referee rule No. 1 - common sense and foresight! From a safety issue there is potential (no matter how slight) for a player to step on a broken stick and crash into the boards or fall awkwardly thereby sustaining a needless injury. With an eye toward the potential for bad things to happen, I was always concerned that a player would shoot a broken stick in the direction of the puck or puck carrier which could result in an interference infraction or the assessment of a penalty shot. I could prevent any opportunity for these things to occur by picking up the debris with a quick swoop whenever the play dictated. The refs are cautioned about being distracted through picking up broken sticks that could result in missing something elsewhere. For this reason some refs just aren't comfortable veering their focus away from the play. I can appreciate that fact and it is their personal choice, Louis.
The debris behind and around the Penguins net on this play however was an accident waiting to happen. Play continued for one minute and 30 seconds after Brooks Orpik's stick was slashed hard by RJ Umberger and broken in half below the goal line at the side of the net which allowed Columbus to gain puck possession (no penalty call but deserved). On the other side of the net the remnants of Sidney Crosby's broken stick eventually provided additional obstacles for players to maneuver around. The Blue Jackets applied puck pressure for 10 seconds before the Pens safely dumped the puck into the Columbus end zone. This would have been a prime opportunity for the referee on the Pittsburgh goal line to safely swoop in and collect the trash.
Until the play was finally stopped when the same referee called a tripping penalty to Matt Niskanen, the Penguins had sustained puck possession throughout the neutral zone and into the Blue Jackets end for extended periods. Another primary missed opportunity for the ref to play pick up the sticks took place when a Blue Jackets dump-in was retrieved by Niskanen. Matt set up behind the Pens goal and led an uncontested breakout after contacting one broken shaft with his skate and avoiding the others as he carried the puck out of Jackets end zone. The ref could have easily followed behind Niskanen, bent down while looking at the play with his head up and quickly gathered the sticks but obviously wasn't comfortable in doing so.
Twenty seconds later the Blue Jackets attacked and play forced the referee to skate backwards behind the Penguins' net. The ref maneuvered through the obstacle field bumping into and stepping over portions of broken sticks, as did the players, until Niskanen tripped Brandon Dubinsky to stop play.
While it makes good sense for a referee not to forsake his primary duties by going out of his way to become a trash collector, I believe that "common sense" should be applied to remove obstacles when the opportunity is safely presented.