Monday, February 14, 2011

EXCLUSIVE: Truth to Power

If you were at Saturday afternoon's matinee at Houston Field House, chances are good that you walked away from the building disgusted by what you saw take place. No, it wasn't a disgust that the Engineers had lost, per se, as they had the previous night to a last-place team. Instead, it was more likely a disgust with the way the game played out thanks to yet another instance of awful officiating decisions, something that ECAC fans, while certainly now accustomed to, are never quite willing to accept, especially when they cost your team a fair shot at earning some league points.

We are told that some of these things are matters of opinion. If that is true, than officiating itself is nothing more than the official's opinion - but we know that's not true. Cornell, on Saturday, was either intentionally trying to start trouble, or they weren't. They were either diving, or they weren't.

It's always a little easier to swallow awful officiating when your team comes out on top - look no farther than the RPI-BU game this past December. But things are now starting to reach a head. Jason Klump, who writes for College Hockey News, became part of the story when he sought comment from Paul Stewart, the ECAC's Director of Officiating, on Saturday's debacle, which led to the ugly sight of frustrated and angry RPI fans hurling towels and other objects toward the referees after the game, ultimately requiring Houston Field House to provide a police escort. We don't support that kind of reaction, but it is certainly telling. This goes beyond run of the mill bad officiating.

Instead, what transpired in the aftermath, not only in Troy but later that night in Schenectady, has to be read to be believed.

Klump wrote this piece for CHN, which understandably declined to publish it, not only because it is an opinion piece, but because Klump became part of the story due to the events that took place while he was writing it. These are his opinions, which are not endorsed by CHN, and which do not represent their views.

We are not constrained by rigid editorial guidelines. Since the very beginning, Without a Peer has melded news and opinion, hard facts and editorial. We also wear our bias on our sleeves - we are RPI fans. What you see is what you get, nothing more, nothing less.

After all, it's all just a matter of opinion - just like the officiating, apparently.

We offer Klump's account here as a look at the attitudes of the ECAC towards its officiating problems - and what happens when members of the media dare to speak truth to power.

You can contact Mr. Klump at jmklump@gmail.com.

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In the final minute of Cornell's 4-0 loss to Union Friday night, the Big Red's Dan Nicholls decided it was time to pick a fight with Andrew Buote of the Dutchmen, who stood his ground and did not retaliate as Nicholls ripped off his helmet, shoulder pads, and sweater.

Cornell coach Mike Schafer did express displeasure with Nicholls' specific decision, but not with the spirit of it.

"I talked to him after the game," Schafer said. "He decided to go after the kid alone. His response was, over the last bunch of games, we've had kids hurt...nothing ever seems to happen. There are no ramifications. I've told our players back in January that we need to start protecting each other. That was the only emotion we showed all night. Hits from behind, high hits, the silent slash to the hands — we've got to protect each other, and do it the right way. That wasn't the right way."

So, on Saturday, Cornell started gooning it up right from the drop, routinely mugging and instigating RPI players after whistles, once crashing into goalie Bryce Merriam at full speed. Not only that, it appeared to many in the press box that they also took more than a few dives throughout the night to lead to several of their eight power plays. Not sure if that is Schafer's idea of "the right way," but that is beside the point.

The point is that there was a perception that referees Peter Feola and Tim Kotyra let Cornell have its way with minimal repercussions while simultaneously allowing them to embellish their way into extra, timely power plays - all the while turning the game altogether into one big revolving penalty box door. The near capacity crowd thought it was so bad, the refs needed security to protect them from towels and other items being thrown as they left the ice.

This is an RPI fanbase that is still steaming from referee Bryan Hicks' now infamous wave-off at Messa Rink of the Engineers' would-be tying goal for phantom goalie interference. Hicks never received any discipline. Further, the ECAC offices refused to issue any comment on the incident, other than they were of course suspending RPI coach Seth Appert one game for violation of secret, unpublished rules (which they also refused to reveal) because he showed video of the play at the post-game press conference. Appert stated at the time that he "[thought] the refs should be worried about it." Apparently, they don't have to be worried. There is an obvious double-standard.

This story actually begins last weekend.

After the games had concluded last Saturday February 5, I emailed ECAC Commissioner Steve Hagwell to ask whether there was a new initiative to hand out more game disqualifications to crack down on rough play in the wake of the pro-style fight earlier this season at the UConn Hockey Classic between Princeton's Michael Sdao and Bowling Green's Max Grover, among other things.

His response via email was as follows:

"An initiative to hand out more game DQs? On what do you base your assertion? If your statement is based on the fact that five (5) disqualification penalties have been assessed in the last two (2) weekends, you are mistaken."

That is in fact the very thing on which I based my inquiry, so I don't think it was quite so far-fetched as he indicated.

He continued to explain, "the fact is that four (4) of those DQs have been assessed for facemasking. The NCAA ice hockey rules committee clarified the penalty for facemasking in the 2010-12 rules book as follows:

'Rule 6, Section 14 (Face Masks), Pages HR-64-65
c. A player shall not grasp and pull or twist an opponent’s facemask.
PENALTY—Disqualification for excessive roughness.'"

So at that point I took his explanation of facemasking being an automatic DQ at face value. That was until Cornell's Rodger Craig was called for a facemasking major Friday night at Union, but received only a game misconduct rather than a DQ. I emailed Hagwell again to see why there was this inconsistency, but received no response as of Saturday evening.

I knew there was going to be reaction to the officiating from the game participants in the post-game at Houston Field House, thus I asked RPI Associate Athletic Director for Communications Kevin Beattie if there was anyone from the league present as I had not seen anyone. He said that both Hagwell and Stewart were there, so I requested to speak to one or both of them.

Before I went to go speak with any players or coaches, Beattie came to me and said Stewart had agreed to speak to me. I was admittedly surprised as I had expected he and Hagwell to decline comment. Beattie led me into an empty room off the officials dressing room where only he, Stewart, and I were present (though this part is all recorded). Since I was about to speak with him about the quality or lack thereof of the officiating in the RPI-Cornell game, I asked Stewart first for clarification on the facemasking issue.

"It's a judgment call based on the officials' evaluation on the ice," he answered, clearly contradicting the Commissioner's previous response. "We've reviewed the call and looked at the tape and we support the call. We don't feel by comparison with regard to some of the other facemasking calls that there was [as much pulling on the mask.] There is a degree of latitude that comes under the term 'judgment' so as much as we want to review the tape, we also have to understand the referee is four feet from it."

Fair enough, but I don't see where the words "judgment" or "latitude" appear in the rule cited by Hagwell, nor do I see how his explanation indicated there was any such discretion. It seems like two inconsistent explanations to explain inconsistent calls.

I then got to the immediate focus of my discussion with Stewart and asked if he had a comment on the officiating of the present game.

"I think it was outstanding," was Stewart's response. "We had the hit from behind [by Cornell's Greg Miller on RPI's John Kennedy late in the 3rd] which was a vicious play and its sad because those types of things can injure players. And it's ironic how sometimes things happen and then they happen again. Interference pick at the blue line by the RPI player going backwards and then vice versa by Cornell."

Stewart was mistaken because both of those identical interference calls first late in the 3rd period and then in overtime to lead to the game-winning goal were against RPI's Bryan Brutlag, part of one of the more controversial sequences in the game. It even got mentioned by Brandon Thomas of the Ithaca Journal in his story.

But since he was choosing to discuss the most obviously non-controversial call and being otherwise evasive of what he likely knew was the basis of my inquiry (which is fine, I like when people make me do my job), I asked him more specifically why it appeared Cornell was allowed to goon it up all night with no repercussions other than a few matching minors.

"Everyone is entitled to their opinion," he began. "And I don't know what...I don't keep track...I don't have a ball or a box of marbles to decide who, you know..."

Realizing it is actually his job to "know what..." is going on, to "keep track..." of it, and to "decide who..." is worthy of officiating in the league, he switched gears mid-sentence.

"...but I would stake that my 38 years in pro hockey and officiating and playing would probably overshadow your experience. Not to belittle your experience, but I watch the game without cheering. I have no provinciality regarding it. I just look at it from the point of view of the ability to enforce the rules fairly and consistently and I felt that these two fellas who have worked Olympic hockey, have worked the Frozen Four..."

"As a linesman," I interjected, to indicate that my experience was enough to know Feola had only called offsides and icing in the 2010 Olympics.

"Regardless," he continued. "Have you ever been to the Olympics yourself?"

"No."

"Well, that answers that. They have experience and they work Frozen Fours and NCAA Championships and ECAC Championships. So I would, if I were a writer with any integrity, I would never question the integrity of an official. That's what you're doing. And I don't appreciate that. OK? End of discussion." He then walked away without shaking my outstretched hand.

After I spoke to Stewart, the participants took a different (and unprovoked) view.

"Yeah, I think that's the way they like to play and any time they can try and get our guys in the box, they're gonna do that," said RPI's Chase Polacek, never quick to denigrate his opponent, when asked about Cornell's tactics. "They try to play a rough style and try to be tough, but sometimes when they're diving around out there, it shows how they really aren't that tough."

"I guess if we would fall down and dive more, we would get more calls," echoed RPI coach Seth Appert. "I find it odd that Cornell falls down so much. It was like an aquatic center out there. A lot of diving. Lot of diving. I get frustrated when Jeff Foss gets called for interference when their guy has the puck. I think by definition you can't have an interference call when the player has the puck. Now, was it a cross-check? Maybe. Was it a dive? Probably. Was it interference? No. If a player has the puck, it cannot be interference. It's not why we lost. It's not why we lost."

Schafer of course saw it the other way. "It was a game where I thought the referees did a great job," he said in his opening statement, completely unprovoked. "They called all the calls that needed to be called all night long. It seemed like the officials, and I'd love to see more of this, they called everything. And I think players will start to respond by being more disciplined."

According to some messages I got from some people who have been covering the ECAC far longer than I, Stewart often cops this "how dare you question me" attitude when reporters ask about the officiating. I don't think I had to actually be at the Olympics to realize that the IOC only felt Feola was qualified to act as a linesman at that level and not a referee. The AHL felt the same way, as a matter of fact. I guess the ECAC has lower standards.

So, I figured that was that and packed up my stuff for the short trip west along Route 7 for my second game of the day, made possible by a separation of the start times in Troy and Schenectady.

When I arrived at Messa Rink for the Union-Colgate game near the end of the first period, Stewart was in the press box and I was still willing to let by-gones be by-gones, so I approached him quietly behind everyone as he was leaving at the end of the period just to clarify that I was not questioning the referees' "integrity."

"I was never questioning anyone's integrity," I said. "I don't believe that either Feola or Kotyra did anything they believed to be wrong or biased. I suppose what I am questioning is their ability to officiate a good game."

At that point, he immediately decided to raise his voice and draw the attention of everyone else in the press box as he accused me of "giving opinions instead of asking the right questions" and failing to be impartial. That was again after he had run through the irrelevant list of qualifications for Feola and Kotyra all over again, all the while making a scene and drawing the attention of everyone away from the game. He then started to walk away, but turned back unprovoked to shout more insults in my direction and to add some finger-pointing.

Honestly, telling me that a bad referee (and I am not saying either is bad, per se, though they were today) has officiated in the Olympics, Frozen Four, or ECAC Championship makes it even worse.

The kicker was that, as he turned back from heading down the stairs, he shouted that I was "being like Appert" and "using the refs as a crutch for why they lost." I won't comment on that part. Enough others already have.

Unfortunately, the spontaneous and impromptu nature of this one-sided confrontation means it was not recorded. It was, however, witnessed by a number of other media figures. Ken Schott of the Daily Gazette wrote in his blog that he feared it would get physical, though I never felt that way. Union SID Jeff Weinstein said he was not going to wait much longer before getting involved to quell Stewart's rage.

Unbeknownst to me at that time, Stewart had apparently already asked Ken Schott at the beginning of the game, asking him "what official are you going to grill next?"

I would like nothing more than to sit down and review the tape of yesterday afternoon's game with Stewart himself while he attempts to justify the calls made or omitted, but his lack of professionalism and propensity for bullying make that unlikely at this point.

Look, Mr. Stewart, I know what you have accomplished in your life, but the fact is you are bad at your current job. I suppose I could write that about a lot of people, but most of them are too classy for me to have any true desire to do so. Heck, I am bad at a lot of things. I was bad at being a law student, mostly because I have no patience for bad laws. But none of the things I am bad at are my job.

The quality and consistency of officiating in the ECAC has been going downhill ever since you took your current position, and I know I'm not the only one who thinks so. What's more, there is absolutely no transparency or accountability. When Bryan Hicks waved off that goal without cause on November 12, he received no suspension. When that happens in the WCHA, refs get fired. The ECAC demands no less if it wants the integrity of the games to be upheld.

I suppose someone in the media had to be the one to say something publicly about the officiating in the ECAC eventually. And I know I am not the only member of the ECAC media who holds my opinion. It can't be left solely to coaches like Seth Appert, because they face suspension for speaking the truth and showing video to back it up, so they will never go as far as they really want. Someone who does not have to fear repercussions, other than maybe the most famous NHL official ever trying to intimidate you, needs to be the one to start the discussion. Unlike Mr. Stewart, I also welcome those with dissenting opinions, for I enjoy civilized discussion.

5 comments:

  1. Although throwing objects at the ref is not condoned (and I know I didn't do so, although I will admit I was close to something else falling in that direction, thankfully some other patrons in the way prevented this from happening), I have found that at least one ECAC referee (no longer with the league, though I believe this change-over happened from last year to this year) had refused to work at Houston Field House following an experience involving a waved-off goal and a disgruntled coach that happened nearly 5 years ago. I'm not sure if Kotyra and Feola will work at HFH again (I would venture a guess that they will have to do so eventually), but I hope we don't get to the point where we won't have any referees that agree to work at HFH because of the hostility of the crowd.

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  2. It's not just RPI fans or coaches though, I was at the 2004 Freakout game versus Clarkson when the Clarkson coach was physically separated from the reffing staff because he was so angry at the quality of calls.

    Why hasn't anyone posted a video montage of bad calls from this season yet? I think that would be very telling.

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  3. If Kotyra and Feola are going to continue to make bad calls, (as they do time and time again), then I'm sure we'd all prefer that they choose not to work at the Field House again. Good riddance.

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  4. I am a Clarkson fan and I will be the first to say that we are undisciplined and take way to many penalties, but when I with my untrained eye watch as the other team penalizes our guys and nothing is called it makes me scratch my head. Last weekend the ref called a holding penalty against Brown, a correct call for the mugging he gave our player. I the same play he called our guy for embellishment. How does one embellish on a hold?

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