There is a loneliness beyond that of the fabled long-distance runner about a big-league hockey referee—as this picture of former National Hockey League Referee Eddie Powers may attest. No matter how big the crowd, nor how furious the play, he is at all times alone on the ice. It is his inescapable lot to be hated, resented, reviled and excoriated by almost everyone concerned for doing his unpleasant but necessary job night after night. He should not, however, be subjected to physical attack, either by players or spectators. Nor should his fitness to serve be the public gossip of coaches and managers. The fact that such physical and spiritual assaults have become commonplace is the growing disgrace of big-league hockey.
The season just concluded was a rough one for officials, as even League President Clarence Campbell cautiously admitted. "We have had," he said, "a considerable number of injuries among the officials—especially the young ones." In Detroit the tempestuous Red Wing, Howie Young, threw a glove at Referee Frank Udvari. In the same city two weeks later, Montreal's Boom-Boom Geoffrion threw both of his gloves plus his hockey stick at Referee Vern Buffey. In Boston only a few weeks ago Buffey was set upon by an irate Bruin, Guy Gendron. In mid-February, long before this occurred, Eddie Powers, generally considered one of the best hockey referees, had quit his job in disgust, not over thrown punches or even thrown tomatoes but because of what he called the failure of the NHL top brass to give him and other officials succor and comfort in their hours of trial.
"I quit the National Hockey League," he says, "because, in my opinion, Clarence Campbell, the president of that league, made a weak show of defending my integrity. The pressure of making split-second decisions on the ice is bad enough without the added strain of knowing you will get no support from the top in a showdown after the game."
According to those who worked with him, Powers' indignation had been a long time simmering. The thing that finally brought it to a boil was a published remark by Canadien Coach Hector (Toe) Blake after a Montreal-Toronto game in which Powers officiated. Blake was talking to newsmen (though he later claimed that he was really just talking to himself) about an investigation league officers were making of a player who had been thrown out of the league years before for gambling and wanted reinstatement. Instead of discussing that, Blake was reported as saying (in the French-language Montreal Matin), "They'd be better off investigating the conduct of officials who handle themselves in such a way you'd think they bet on the outcome of the game."
April 8, 1963
Powers, who felt his honor had been impugned, promptly complained about it to Campbell, and two weeks later the league president fined Blake $200. But this, as Powers likes to point out, was only four times what Campbell had fined Linesman George Hayes a month before for working a game without a proper shave. In Powers' view this seemed to show that a referee's honesty is worth only four trips to the barbershop. Moreover, there is a clear-cut bylaw stating that any manager publicly criticizing a referee is subject to a fine of up to $1,000.
"When I heard about that fine," says Powers, "I was disgusted. I was due to attend a referees' meeting the following day in Montreal, so when I got there, I went straight to the league office and told Referee in Chief Carl Voss, 'I'm quitting.' Then I walked out, determined never again to work for either Voss or his boss, Clarence Campbell."
In quitting the NHL, Eddie Powers was following the lead of another official, Red Storey, also highly rated in his time. During the 1959 Stanley Cup playoffs, Clarence Campbell was quoted as saying that Storey "froze" on some important decisions during a game at Chicago. Three days later Storey turned in his resignation and told the newspapers: "I'm quitting this game because the league president did not back me up. This thing is like a three-ring circus and the officials are being made the clowns."
Whether or not such criticisms as Storey's or Powers' are justified is a question still open to argument. Frank Udvari, who shares with Powers and Storey the reputation of being a first-class official, wants no part of them. "Hell," he says, "Campbell saved my job for me. I was going to quit once after a game in Montreal. Frank Selke wanted to get me fired, but Campbell stood up for me. Powers had troubles in a few games but he's never had the trouble I had."
What is not open to argument is the fact that to make any criticisms at all an official is virtually forced to quit the league. In the handbook for the guidance of NHL officials, Referee in Chief Carl Voss states bluntly that referees and linesmen alike "must refrain from public criticism of the league, its officers, its policies, fellow officials and linesmen and players, or the officials of league teams." This is not exactly an invitation to make an open forum of discontent.
"Unless Mr. Campbell clears it, I have no business giving information to the press or even talking to the press," said Linesman Matt Pavelich last week when he was asked to comment on a charge that the referee in chief had once rebuked him in front of a team manager.
Despite their disinclination to talk about it, the current morale of NHL referees and linesmen is, according to ex-Referee Powers, "at an alltime low," thanks to the fact that Campbell and Voss "have repeatedly failed to support officials in controversial situations." To illustrate, he cites the time when Jack Adams, then general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, called him "gutless and chicken" to a roomful of reporters. Campbell, says Powers, took no disciplinary action whatever against the Detroit manager.
Referees, according to Powers, are not only the least appreciated of sports officials but quite possibly the most underpaid. Powers does not include himself in this complaint. During the 1961-62 season he made $13,380, which is fair money in any business. His regular pay was $175 a game. Udvari has even fewer grounds for complaint and he explains his refusal to join Powers' walkout with: "Where else could I make $16,000 in a year?" But the less-experienced hockey officials have to make do with far less than either of these. The younger referees make only two or three thousand more than the $5,000 they are guaranteed for the year, and at their regular pay of $40 a game even the best linesmen seldom earn more than $6,000. Their guaranteed pay is a puny $2,500.
These are not sums calculated to give a man the sense of security that makes it easy for him to talk back to employees who have the arbitrary power to impose fines. And the fines are sometimes imposed with godlike capriciousness.
Some weeks ago the Canadiens' crack goalie, Jacques Plante, a man whose chronic exasperation equals his skill in the nets, startled everyone in the NHL by suddenly charging that goals, which are supposed to be of uniform size, varied from city to city. Powers was about to referee a game in Chicago Stadium when the charge was made, and Voss hastily called to ask if he had a tape measure. Powers admitted he had not, and soon afterward Voss arrived bringing one with him. When the goals at the stadium were measured they proved that Plante was right.
A few days later, Referee Powers was notified that he had been fined $25 for failing to carry a tape measure.
"There is no rule anywhere," he says, "making it mandatory to carry a tape measure. How can a man be fined for breaking a rule that doesn't exist?"
A rule that does exist, according to Eddie Powers, only to be broken repeatedly by the league president and his chief of referees, is that concerning the conduct of games. Labeled 36 (a) in the official NHL rulebook it reads: "The referee shall have general supervision of the game and full control of all game officials and players during the game, including stoppages; and in case of any dispute, his decision shall be final."
"I had been a referee in the Western Hockey League for six seasons when I broke into the NHL," says Eddie Powers, "and I was determined to call games my way. I always resented interference during a game."
Powers tells of a time during the intermission in a playoff game he was refereeing in Chicago. Vern Buffey, the standby referee that night, brought a message to him from Campbell, who liked to keep control of things from the stands. "You might as well talk to the wall," snapped Powers. "I'll listen to Campbell when the game's over. Not now."
In Montreal three years earlier, it fell to Powers to supervise one of the wildest free-for-alls that ever took place on NHL ice. In the second period of a Canadiens-Maple Leafs game the Hab goalie took a swipe at the Leafs' Billy Harris. When Harris retaliated, Canadien Jean-Guy Talbot leaped at him and both players landed on the ice. Gerry James, a Winnipeg footballer on the Leafs, raced to Harris' help, and Montreal's Dickie Moore charged over to help Talbot. In a moment every player on both teams was twisting, squirming, gripping, clawing or throwing punches somewhere in the confusion. When the ruckus was halted, Powers decided that the only way to arrive at a reasonable solution was to send everybody on both teams into the penalty box and then to bring them out and send them back again, in a complex schedule involving delayed two-minute and five-minute jail terms.
Clarence Campbell was sitting in the stands at the time, and soon after play was resumed Powers began to notice that the wrong players were coming out of the box. "I skated over to the timekeeper," he says, "and asked, 'What's going on?' The confused timekeeper explained, 'Mr. Campbell told me to do it this way.' "
Whatever his ex-referee may feel about him, National League President Campbell seems to bear no grudge against Powers. Campbell was a referee himself and was once punched on the nose by the Bruins' great superstar, Dit Clapper, so he has—or at any rate claims—a certain sympathy. "Mr. Powers is an experienced and capable referee," he said in Montreal just before the season ended. "We have no quarrel with him, and if he has one with us, that is his prerogative. It was his job to referee hockey games, not decisions reached by the National Hockey League. He felt we were not backing him up enough and as a result he left. Well, he left."
President Campbell's comments are doubtless diplomatic, but they are far less informative than those of Canadian Senator Hartland de M. Molson, one of the most active of the Montreal owners. Senator Molson admits frankly that the refereeing situation is a mess. Like other veteran observers, he believes the trouble lies chiefly in the rule book, a piece of fiction that bears little resemblance to the game that is played on the ice. "Either start playing the game according to the rules," he says (which means giving the referees a much firmer hand), "or rewrite the rules to fit the game."
Whatever the rules say, big-league hockey will not long be taken seriously as a game if its officials become mere objects which can be shoved from goal to goal like the puck. By averting his eyes fromex-Referee Powers' complaints, ex-Referee Campbell is leaving himself open to the taunt frequently aimed at his referees by the fans at New York's Madison Square Garden when official decision runs counter to their taste. "Hey dere, Clarence," the Broadway wits are likely to shout at him. "Ya know ya missin' a great game?"