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With a lot of playoff games this year already going deep into overtime, we've all heard talk about how no player wants to be the one who makes a mistake prompted by exhaustion that leads to the game-winning goal. But to what extent does all this extra play time affect the officials? How much do they feel the physical and mental fatigue caused by a game heading into its second or third overtime period, and is this related to the perception - real or imagined - that officials tend to "swallow their whistles" in OT?
Fatigue was much more of an issue to contend with in the one referee system when we chased the play from end to end and didn't get much of an opportunity for a rest. A ref's best friend can be a moving puck. Whenever possible, I attempted to force players to "move it"! Aside from enhancing the entertaining value of the game another upside of sustained action was that players gave and received hits with less likelihood of retaliation and scrums developing. On occasion I wore a heart monitor and during three to five minute runs without a whistle the readings would be sustained between 165-175 bpm. By comparison the highest my heart rate ever got in the two referee system was 98 bpm.
There should be no reason (in the two-ref system) where physical fatigue might negatively impact the decision making process for an official regardless how many overtime periods are played. The mental aspect of a referee's performance is a whole different kettle of fish! While players don't want to become the "goat" by making a bad play or mistake, the referees' internal struggle is all about rendering a decision that might be perceived as a game ending bad call. (You notice I said perceived.) The best remedy in dealing with this pressure is for the official to maintain a rock solid focus of concentration by remaining in the moment and react to call penalties whenever they occur. Once a ref stops refereeing and puts his whistle away he becomes a spectator instead of an enforcer of the playing rules.
Each referee can feel intense pressure to make sure any call he makes is viewed as a "must call" in the late stages and overtime. The referees' best work is done well in advance of the late stages of a game by maintaining the expected standard of enforcement and to keep the players in check throughout the entire game. The best deterrent against infractions being committed is "fear" a ref can instill in players that he will call the penalty whenever it is committed. When that is achieved players tend to play much more disciplined. The onus is placed more squarely on the players not to commit infractions once the referees enforce the rules more consistently and when expectations are met. I notice a difference in these playoffs as to which referees the players respond to and those they take full liberties with.
Once the penalty standard slides and obvious infractions are let go it is extremely difficult for the referee to make a call in the late stages unless it involves a scoring opportunity, a puck over the glass or a major infraction. At times such as this the referee crew become 'spectators' and fly on a wing and a prayer in hopes that the players will not do something really stupid that might force a call. If the referee chooses to turn his whistle into a 'fossil' the worst thing he can do is upset the apple cart with a penalty call that doesn't have a direct bearing on the play or is of less quality than what he previously has let go. We saw a prime example of this with fewer than two minutes remaining in Game 4 of the Habs-Lightning series. While it is difficult to deny that the trip by Cedric Paquette on Michael Bournival was a legitimate foul, given the countless infractions that were not penalized, the referee(s) were subjected to justifiable ridicule for calling a trip in the corner of the rink at that time of the game.
It is important to note there have been some real solid performances by the 'zebras' in games thus far. The officials we notice most however are ones that stop refereeing the game and employ a standard of enforcement that resembles 'shifting sand.' This isn't a result of fatigue; physical or mental. There is an answer to this dilemma. The referees have to be given clear direction by the Officiating Management to know and maintain the expected penalty throughout the entire game. In this regard the officials need to be better coached and held accountable when the expected standard is not met. Finally, when the officials do the job and make the 'tough' calls they need to know they will be supported.