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)

http://gfycat.com/ifr/MammothAdorableGreendarnerdragonfly

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.

Ron MacLean, French referees, and public outrage

First of all, GO HABS GO! Great series, boys!

If you’re a fan like me, you watched games 1-4 attentively, with excitement. You would have seen a young French referee in Game 3 named Francis Charron make a very gutsy call to disallow a Tampa Bay goal. You would have seen the shock that followed from the Tampa bench. You would have expected, from experience, that the fact that this referee and the Montreal coach and GM spoke the same first language would be brought up. Sadly.

You’d have been right.

Then, in Game 4, another French referee, Francois St. Laurent, is involved in another goalmouth decision. This time, he decides in favour of Tampa Bay. Phew. Crisis averted, right?

Nope.

At the intermission, CBC’s Ron MacLean opines that the NHL should not have assigned a French referee to this game, given what happened in the last game.

Okay. Interesting.

Then, within hours, outrage from people in various parts of the country at this comment.

The Montreal Gazette, in its typical habit of promoting controversy to sell “papers”, publishes a letter to the editor written at lightning-fast speed (so fast he didn’t even care to check facts or understand context) by Calgary native Kevin O’Connor, who criticizes, well, everyone at the CBC, saying this:

Ron MacLean’s comments regarding the inappropriate use of French referees in the Montreal Canadiens vs. Tampa Bay game was insulting to all Canadians who respect diversity and who live in a country that claims this as a value.

To think our so-called national broadcaster allows such divisive rhetoric is deplorable and just reinforces the fact that the CBC should have its funding cut (even though I do not support the political reasons the government uses to justify its cuts).

The CBC should be ashamed of itself! I know my family and I are.

I would love to have someone from CBC provide an explanation to my 6-year-old son, who asked “why is Mr. MacLean saying they should not have French referees?”

(…)

Once again, shame on the CBC. Hopefully Rogers will provide a more balanced coverage and keep divisive ignorant behaviour to a minimum.

A soon to be RDS customer …

Kevin O’Connor, Calgary

Since he asks so nicely for someone to provide an explanation to his 6-year old son, and since I love to help, here’s one I wrote just for him. I invite him to share this with his young child.

To Kevin O’Connor, outraged Habs fan:

As a proud Habs fan myself, I watched last night’s Game 4 with interest and excitement, and heard the comment that Ron MacLean made about French referees during the intermission.

As a parent, aware of my child being a proverbial “sponge”, soaking in comments from all around, and her being very inquisitive, I am sensitive to your call for “someone from CBC provide an explanation to my 6-year-old son, who asked “why is Mr. MacLean saying they should not have French referees?””

Since I doubt that the CBC would take the time to provide such an answer to you, please accept mine.

First, I would tell your son that Mr. MacLean did not actually say they should not have French referees. I would tell him that it is important to listen carefully before criticizing. What Mr. MacLean actually said was that he doesn’t think the league should have assigned a French referee for Game 4, the game following one where a French referee made a marginal call in favour of the Habs that had a huge impact on the game.

You could use this opportunity to teach your son the meaning of the term “unfortunate coincidence” given that you must, like all reasonable people, understand that professional hockey referees do not stand to gain anything by calling a game in favour of one team or the other.

You could further teach your son that whether we like it or not, people will judge. They won’t take the time to understand the context of the thing they are complaining about, to get the full story, or even make sure that the story they tell is true. They will judge anyway.

Oh, wait. You did teach your son that. You proved to him that his own father is the worst example of that, by writing this letter.

Now that you have received my explanation, Mr. O’Connor, I would ask you to provide me with an explanation of why you are so outraged by MacLean’s so-called generalization of “French referees” (that you have wildly misinterpreted, by the way) while finding it completely acceptable to generalize MacLean’s personal comment to be representative of the entire CBC. I actually read what you wrote (“The CBC should be ashamed of itself!) and again later (Once again, shame on the CBC!) before criticizing. Why should an entire network be ashamed because of a singular comment made by one person during a live broadcast?

Finally, you could teach your son that people make mistakes, and that the honourable ones take responsibility and apologize, just like Ron MacLean did. The sad part, here, is that you criticized so quickly that you didn’t give him the time to teach your son the most important lesson of all – that when you do wrong, or might have, to ultimately do what is right.

Mark (Unleashed)