Watson vs. Prust, an in-depth analysis

In the first period of the Montreal-Tampa Bay game on Sunday evening, referee Brad Watson assessed a roughing penalty to Montreal’s Brandon Prust. Many viewers thought it a marginal call, and it seems, as in many penalty cases, that the penalized player had a few words for the referee. Unlike many cases, however, this time the verbal war between player and referee escalated, with TV cameras picking up referee Watson yelling and wagging his finger at Prust in the penalty box.

As a long time referee (20+ years of experience) with a commitment to upholding the rules of the sports I officiate without bias – and – as a Habs fan who has come to understand and respect Brandon Prust’s unique style of play and behaviour on the ice, I have a unique perspective to offer. I hope you’ll find this both informative and even-handed.

First, players complain on about 3/4 of all penalty calls. Players always see situations differently from referees. Whether because of the saintly way humans in general see their own actions, from their interest in their team winning, or just from a different angle of vision, we will have different viewpoints on what happened – sometimes literally. It is also common that these disagreements include certain choice words from player to referee. Like in every confrontational situation, there are lines to not cross. While these lines are largely subjective and their locations vary from official to official, there is one common rule among seasoned sports officials: if you’re going to criticize a referee’s decision, don’t make it personal. The expression goes: “the f-word won’t get you kicked out of a game; the y-word will.”

That y-word is “you”.

Brandon Prust’s version of the story is that he told Watson he thought the call was “soft”. If that is true, and that’s all that Prust said, then it should’ve ended there. Referees hear far worse than that on a regular basis and nothing comes of it. So, unless Watson was trying to bait Prust by making a very marginal call against him at the first opportunity, I doubt that that is all that Prust said.

When I first saw the penalty call, I had to rewind my PVR to see it again, because there was nothing penalty-worthy on that play until Prust saw Watson’s arm up. I looked again, and still – nothing. I took to twitter posting:

Unbelieveable that Referee Watson found 2 minutes in that Prust/Coburn sequence, let alone 4 minutes. What the hell is going on?

Well, it seems that the hell that was going on was that altercation between Prust and the calling referee.

Here’s a GIF of the stern finger-wagging talking-to that Watson gave Prust at the penalty box. (courtesy Stephanie Vail @myregularface)


There are a few things wrong with this picture.

First, notice how preoccupied referee Watson is making sure that his public address microphone is off. Are these the actions of someone who is saying something he wouldn’t mind people hear? I doubt it. I would guess that he knows that what he is saying is over a line, and he wants to make sure that there’s no public record of it.

Second, notice where Prust is looking – and more importantly, where he is not looking. He is not looking at all at the referee – exactly as he asserted in his post-game comments. While it is still possible that he is verbally abusing Watson while looking elsewhere, he is not looking at him or taking an aggressive posture against the referee. In fact, he is in the process of doing exactly what Watson ordered him to do – sitting down. There is NO reason for the referee to still be at the penalty box, let alone to be taking an aggressive posture against a player who is complying.

We are taught over and over to make our call and get out of the area. Watson would have been well-served to follow this basic advice.

Third, the finger wag. In addition to obviously raised voices, referee Watson decided to sternly wag his finger at Prust as if Watson were the father of a petulant child. While Prust can sometimes act that way, in no situation is it appropriate for a referee to lecture a player in this manner. Those who are accusing Prust of publicly shaming an official should look here for the beginning of that tale – where Watson publicly shamed a player. This is unacceptable – both ways.

If players and referees have something to say to each other, they should say it, and be done. Once a player has entered the penalty box and is in the process of sitting down, there is no reason for a referee to be standing over him, aggressively, waving his finger and yelling at the player. To do so only invites needless trouble and, in this case, it showed up right on cue.

If Prust is telling the whole truth that he confined his comments to Watson’s penalty call being “soft”, then there is no verbal abuse here. It is completely understandable that a player criticize a referee’s call in a reasonable tone, especially in a heated professional playoff series. The standard has been set, and that behaviour, however unlikely to be the whole truth, would fit neatly within that established standard. If it were the case, the blame would lie entirely with Watson for a grave overreaction.

If, however, Prust used more colourful language to protest the call, then Watson is still wrong to have reacted the way he did. Referees are the highest authority on the ice during a hockey game. They have tools that allow them to keep order in these exact situations, and they do not have to consult with anyone before using them. They are judge and jury. That’s a lot of power. To take a famous quote, though, with great power comes great responsibility: referees must not commit the same sins that their tools allow them to punish. Referees must always hold themselves to a higher standard, in large part due to the fact that the subordinate players they govern do not have the same ability to punish them when they lose control.

If Prust went on with his complaints for too long, used choice words, made his protest too loud or personal, then Watson would be well within his rights to assess more penalties – 2 minutes, 10 minutes, or a game misconduct, according to the rules of the game – the rules Watson is responsible for applying.

Prust accused Watson of “calling him every name in the book”. To that I simply answer, “so what?” This happens all the time. Name calling is, sadly, part of the professional game. I don’t like it, but it is.

The first real problem arises from Prust’s next accusation. If, as Prust asserts, Watson actually threatened to “drive [him] out of the arena” then that’s a big problem. When a referee starts seeing themselves as the person who gets to decide who plays and who doesn’t, they lose sight of their role in the game. I believe that the best referees are the ones who view themselves as guardians of the rules, not as being all-powerful. That, coupled with Watson’s extremely ill-advised decision to openly show up a player he has already penalized, made this situation much more difficult than it was, and than it needed to be.

Watson didn’t maintain the necessary higher standard the referees must hold themselves to. He chose a different path. Watson chose to embarrass a player, and by doing so, he not only crossed a line, but he opened the floodgates. It was his actions at the penalty box that opened the door for the shenanigans that followed. Instead of deescalating a situation on the ice, he was responsible for escalating it. And for what? To send a message? We must always remember that referees and players in these professional leagues are both adults, and both deserve respect.

When players don’t respect referees, there are consequences written into the rules of the game. Referees need only apply these consequences. When referees don’t respect players, there is a much bigger problem. While I don’t like the way Prust decided to seek relief from this problem, I can’t help but understand why he did it that way. People who feel backed into a corner and unfairly treated often lash out in extreme ways.

As a sports official who has thrown out hundreds of players and coaches for unsportsmanlike behaviour and verbal abuse, let me be perfectly clear: there is no place for it in sports. Respect must win the day. But, when it doesn’t, – players and referees are human, after all – referees must make absolutely sure to remain on the high road, use the tools they are given, and keep the situations – and themselves – in control. When we don’t, bad things tend to happen.

Last night, referee Brad Watson either forgot this rule or failed at applying it. Just as it did when Stephane Auger did it (much less demonstrably, I might add), that lapse may end up costing him his job.

As always, I invite your respectful comments below, even if you don’t share my view.