Hockey at the Olympic Games has come to be regarded as the height of competition for the world’s best players. Unfortunately, it also can be ground zero for the worst kind of people – Irrational Referee Execrators (or IRE) – and the lowest form of hockey debate. You know the lowest form of hockey debate, right? It goes like this: “Aw, look at that (insert random nationality here) referee! He’s calling it because he’s (insert random nationality here)! So typical of those conniving (insert random nationality here)!”
Baseless presumptions of nationalistic bias among on-ice officials are nearly as much of an international hockey tradition as the Games themselves. As far back as the 1972 Summit Series and as recently as the 2002 Olympics, fans, media and even particular players have been swept up in the emotion of the moment and tried to find something sinister in the motives of the men and women in stripes.
Of course, the problem with IRE conspiracy theories is there’s not a shred of evidence to back them up. No confessional smoking gun from an official. No computer file containing details of the meticulous planning that went into perpetrating the crime. No, it’s just people popping off at the mouth because the idea that something is nefarious is easier to digest than the notion their team isn’t as good as they believe it to be.
And for my money, excuse-making and finger-pointing isn’t the spirit of the Olympics. All that does is tarnish, diminish and distract from the achievements of those who do excel at the Games.
I’m not saying there hasn’t been ample evidence of an absence of competence among Olympic officials over the years, but that’s a different story. Blown and/or missed calls happen often, at all levels. Players know this. Coaches and GMs know this. Referees and linesmen know this. The only people who can’t accept it are overzealous fans with a persecution complex.
But let’s go back to the two examples of questionable referee behavior cited in the third paragraph of the column you’re now reading. At the ’72 Summit Series, the Canadians were convinced referee Josef Kompalla had it out for them and threatened not to play the final game of the two-team showdown if the German officiated it. A bureaucratic showdown ensued, but and Kompalla wound up as one of the two referees for the game despite Canada’s serious reservations. But rather than sulking and/or leaving the rink under protest, the Canadians used their loathing of Kompalla as a rallying point and wound up winning that game.
Similarly, when the Canadian women’s team at the 2002 Games were on the wrong end of eight consecutive penalties called by American referee Stacey Livingston in the gold medal final, they easily could have sat back and allowed the injustice to be the story of that game. But Team Canada knew the small solace found in the shade of an excuse isn’t the hallmark of a winner. And the women of that team went on to beat the U.S., anyway.
In both cases, poor officiating not only didn’t stop a championship team from asserting their willpower – it underscored how good those teams were in overcoming it.
Another reason it’s a waste of breath and energy to be an IRE: what’s the alternative to the officials currently judging the sport? If years of experience and training provided by the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation don’t meet your lofty standards, do you think there’s an as-yet-undiscovered island full of flawless referees and linesmen just waiting to be found and airlifted to high-stakes games to guarantee they’ll be called perfectly?
To ask the question is to answer it. There are no hockey officials on the planet who can do the job better than the ones already doing it. They’re never going to be perfect, because this is a subjectively perceived game and the human element always will be a factor. Video replay might help in certain instances, but again, those who would be placed in charge of video replay also happen to be human. If they didn’t make a decision a certain fan base agreed with, would they be part of the conspiracy, too?
You can see how exhausting this mentality is when you extend it to its illogical conclusion. It may be comforting to presume the world wants nothing more than to stop your favorite team from winning, but those who willingly play victim are doing themselves and their team no favors.
It is unbecoming for pro athletes to allow their opponents to define them. Same goes for sports fans. Assuming the officials are your opponents isn’t just wrong, it’s sad and more than a little pathetic. So before you open up your sound hole to bleat and air your grievances about the zebras, ask yourself what good it does.
If the answer isn’t “nothing,” your biggest problem with officials isn’t officials. Your biggest problem is you.