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.


Lies and pants

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
 – Winston Churchill
Why is this so true? Consider that a lie requires only imagination and isn’t held back by that pesky thing called honesty. No need to let facts ruin a good story, eh?
Telling an intentional lie is the lowest of societal lows, and I would venture to say that there is always an ulterior motive behind such a lie. If one’s eyes and mind are open, the reason behind the deception is usually very easy to identify.
Accidental lies, though less egregious, are still offensive.  Whether due to misseducation, misunderstanding, misconception, or miscommunication, a lie-teller always misses the point. Let no one deny that anyone who communicates anything bears the ultimate responsibility for either ensuring the veracity of the information before passing it on or, if it’s not true, for at least making sure that they do not share it with anyone else. (Bonus points to anyone who, after hearing a lie, follows up and confronts the person or source they heard it from.)

Of course, the media has a significant share of responsibility for the ease that lies have in getting around the world. The media promotes lies because it loves controversy, and nothing creates tension and conflict and sells newspapers or commercials like a sensationalized story that plays on emotions. If I had a dime for every time a reporter told me that their facts were wrong because they “didn’t have the time” to check them, I would be living comfortably on a private island instead of writing this blog during a snowfall. It’s truly unfortunate that priorities are this skewed.

Lastly, and even more prevalent now with the increased role of social media and the ease of sharing information, the public has a responsibility for the lies it consumes. We eat this stuff up and, given the sick joy we seem to get from the lies told about others, we are always hungry for the next meal.

Why are so few people taking concrete action to stop lies dead in their tracks? Worse, why are so many groups so eager to help lies get farther, faster?

The inspiration for this blog post came from recent news stories. While in Toronto for a race, monitors in the Toronto subway system shared a “news” report entitled: “Israeli spy device found: Hezbollah.” Really? Reading up on the story online later in the day, Yahoo! News reports that “the device exploded, apparently detonated remotely by the Israelis, Hezbollah said in a statement.”

Simple, basic critical thinking should raise some puzzling questions about this statement. To recap, the device “exploded”, so they never got a chance to study it, so how do they know that it was a spy device and not, say, a bomb? How do they know this “spy device” was Israeli? On what basis can they claim that it was “detonated remotely by the Israelis?”

In reality, there is no such proof, but hey, who needs proof when your aim is to villify your neighbour? Who needs proof when the media just reprints what you tell them to without questioning anything? Who needs proof when the readers believe a sensational headline? When they don’t probe?

Demand proof! If there is no proof, the accusation should never be printed. And if it is printed without proof, don’t believe it! They are counting on people to be stupid pawns in their public relations war. They are counting on their lies creating hatred and animosity towards the only state in the middle east that actually believes in democracy and abides by the rule of law. Don’t let lies create enemies. Stand up for peace!

Even if one stipulates that it *was* a spy device (since no one can prove it with certainty), anyone who has followed middle Eastern news knows that there are other groups who might reasonably be interested in learning more about the goings on (read: spying) in Lebanon. Hezbollah and the Lebanese government don’t always see eye-to-eye, Lebanon and Syria don’t exactly have a relationship based on trust, and the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005 exposed major conflicts in the country. Currently, the United Nations is in the middle of a special investigation into Hariri’s assassination and the theories of the killing (and who is responsible) center around telecommunications equipment, just like the system that the device was allegedly “spying” on.

What happened to real investigative journalism? It seems that like many people in many professions, it’s easier to just “mail it in”, that is, satisfy the bare minimum requirements without doing what we know needs to be done in order to submit quality work.

In response to a Montreal Gazette article entitled “Want fast care? Slip an MD some cash”, Dr. Markus Martin, MD at the Jewish General Hospital, asks “why doesn’t The Gazette try something more challenging, something that involves real reporting and real research and not just innuendo?” The Gazette will undoubtedly respond that they seeked out a “high-ranking physician” as a source. I argue that a single source making an anonymous accusation is not nearly enough to justify the magnitude of the negative impacts on thousands of doctors and on the confidence of millions of patients.

Dr. Martin ends his letter by inviting the Gazette to interview every obstetrics patient of his for the last 10 years in order to “ask if [he] ever accepted cash” in exchange for preferential medical treatment. Dr. Martin suggests that, upon completion of these interviews, the Gazette “will quickly ascertain how scurrilous and hurtful [their] inaccurate insinuations are.” Unfortunately for those who value truth, scurrilous, hurtful, and inaccurate insinuations sell papers much more effectively than the truth.

Some journalists, and the media outlets that support them, are complicit with those whose goal it is to promote their  selfish (and possibly destructive) goals at the expense of truth. They know that the truth will earn them condemnation, not support, and they can’t let that happen. These lies, unchecked, will stand in the way of the realization of society’s best interests.

Worse, lies are standing in the way of peace in many regions of the world. We have a choice. We can either let lies stand in the way, or we can stand up to them in order to stand up for what we all know is right. Instead of turning a blind eye, when confronted with a lie, challenge yourself to help the truth get its pants on quickly.