There they were, all 32 NHL coaches, sitting at tables in a ballroom at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago, a slap shot away from O’Hare International Airport. General managers meet a few times a year to discuss the state of the game and possible rule changes, but this one-day gathering in September also included the league’s head coaches, a rarity.
The vibe was casual. Most of the coaches were dressed in polo shirts, cups of coffee in their hands. Toward the end of the meeting, as some GMs and coaches began to check on early afternoon flight times, Stephen Walkom, the NHL’s senior vice president and director of officiating, began an overview.
He took the coaches and GMs through the origin and execution of the coach’s challenge, the types of penalties that were up and down last season and the genesis of 45-plus rule or standard changes instituted since the 2004-05 lockout. After all, many of the coaches in the room weren’t behind the bench when the changes took place.
Still, many figured there was another reason they were summoned to Illinois on the cusp of training camps, and they were right.
At the end of his presentation, Walkom cued up a video montage, broadcast on TVs around the room, showing roughly 20 clips of the biggest names in the coaching ranks going off on officials. Fists shaken. Fiery red faces. F-bombs flying.
“It was like getting called into the principal’s office and you’re not sure what it’s about until they hit play,” said Dallas Stars coach Pete DeBoer, grinning.
For the coaches, it felt like they were back in their playing days, the hair on the back of their necks standing up as they prayed they wouldn’t be shown blowing up after a bad turnover or missed coverage.
Minnesota Wild coach Dean Evason, for one, kept thinking: I hope they don’t show me motherf—ing the referees. I hope I don’t come up, I hope I don’t come up.
“And,” Evason said with a sheepish laugh, “there I am.”
Paul Maurice, the Florida Panthers coach, “stole the show,” according to DeBoer, using profanity with “world-class” skill.
“I thought his performance was by far the best,” DeBoer said, smiling.
“Actually, they left out a bunch, which I was pleased with,” Maurice said. “They didn’t get some of my finer moments.”
Colorado Avalanche coach Jared Bednar “got lucky” and didn’t appear in the montage but said they could have unearthed some gems. DeBoer also “somehow” escaped scrutiny, but so many others were shown.
The final clip, or mic drop, was of Rick Bowness — he of more than 2,000 games behind an NHL bench — slamming a stick in an outburst two years ago when he was coaching the Stars. As the video wrapped, Bowness, now 68 and with the Winnipeg Jets, commented that in his younger days, he would have been able to snap that stick.
The presentation brought laughter. The GMs loved it. And the league intended the video less as a tongue-lashing and more tongue-in-cheek. But the message was clear, and commissioner Gary Bettman drove the point home, addressing the group after the montage ended. The cameras are always on you as a coach, he emphasized, so tone it down with the officials. Communicate, don’t cuss them out. Having clips of coaches lose their minds all over social media and on TV isn’t what anybody wants.
“When we’re all telling the refs to f— off, it’s not a good visual for the league,” Evason said. “When the camera’s on us and kids and people are watching us and we’re telling people to f— off, screaming, it’s not right. The league’s message was, ‘Sometimes it gets heated, but let’s tone it down.’”
Added DeBoer: “I likened it to being at a family wedding in the summer and overindulging and making a fool of yourself on the dance floor and you convince yourself it wasn’t that bad. Your kids tell you how bad you looked, and you convince yourself it wasn’t that bad — until you actually see it in video.
“The point was taken well by all of us, that we’ve got to control ourselves.”
Colorful exchanges between coaches and officials aren’t a recent phenomenon. There are just so many more cameras capturing them now, and it is so easy to post tirades on social media. But it wasn’t that long ago that refs simply stayed away from coaches who were losing their cool.
“When I started, there were conversations that you absolutely would not want to be caught on a hot mic or camera, for a lip reader,” said retired NHL referee Kerry Fraser, whose career started in the early 1980s and spanned 37 seasons. “Some of it was Triple-X rated. But what we were told back then, and I’m talking in the late ’70s, early ’80s, is that we were to stay away from it, completely. Stay away from the bench.”
Eventually, that changed.
Fraser recalled a crystalizing moment for him in an on-ice interaction with the late Bryan Murray in the 1980s. Murray, then the Washington Capitals coach, was always an emotional coach and later GM.
During one game, when Murray made a scene at the old Cap Centre following a Fraser call, the referee decided to “take a leap of faith.” He skated to the bench, his palms facing out as a sign of peace, then told Murray, “I’d love to have a conversation with you, but to do so, I need you to calm down and get off the boards.”
Fraser explained to Murray why he called the penalty and told him he understood if he didn’t agree.
“Kerry, you’re right about one thing,” Fraser recalled Murray saying. “‘I don’t agree with what you said. But thanks for coming over and talking with me.”
In Murray’s postgame press conference, Fraser said Murray brought up that it was the first time a referee had come over to speak with him.
Those coach-referee interactions became more of a two-way street over time, boosted once players from that era became coaches. Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour and Chicago Blackhawks coach Luke Richardson, both captains in their playing days, said their experiences talking with referees when they were on the ice helped them better manage the dynamic when they moved to the bench.
“Sometimes, it’s a heated conversation,” Brind’Amour, known as one of the more fiery coaches, said. “They let you blow off some steam and told you when to stop. And if you don’t, you get the extra penalty. It’s not an issue. They know it’s an emotional game. We put a lot into each game, the players and coaches.
“The good officials, which are all of them, they know how to handle it. They let you blow off steam. They come over and say, ‘Have you had enough?’ And if you don’t, they’ll kick you out.”
Richardson is in his second season as an NHL coach after 21 as a player.
“I’ve had tiffs when I was a player,” Richardson said. “You’d go up to them and see them in warmups. You talk and laugh and say, ‘Water under the bridge.’ Sometimes they’ll come up — and Kelly Sutherland is one of the best — he’ll come up to you and say, ‘Hey I missed that. I’ll keep my eyes open. I’m sorry.’”
Motivations for barking at the refs vary. Richardson said he’ll do it to get the officials’ attention and keep his players’ focus on the ice.
“I always remind the players to let us deal with that,” he said. “You stick to the game and play. And referees are probably appreciative that there’s not 20 guys on the bench yelling.”
Brind’Amour said when he gets into it with a referee, it’s because “99 percent of the time I’m right.”
“There’s a reason coaches get upset,” Brind’Amour said. “The broadcasts don’t bring it up. They show a guy losing his mind, but there’s a reason.”
Bowness agreed: “They’re showing us react. But they’re not showing what made us react.”
Fraser said part of the officials’ responsibility is managing the emotions in the game, which can come through calling a game tight if it’s getting out of hand. Or it can be using that relationship with the coach to keep tempers from rising.
During Marc Crawford’s first season with the Quebec Nordiques in 1995, Fraser drew the ire of the rookie coach after making a call on star Peter Forsberg during a game in Florida. Crawford reacted by not putting his team back on the ice for the ensuing penalty kill. When Fraser approached the bench, Crawford unleashed “the most awful, profane dialogue that I’ve ever heard as a referee in the NHL,” Fraser said.
After the game, while a still-fuming Fraser was having beers with his peers in the officials’ dressing room, Crawford popped in and apologized. Fraser gave him a “lifetime warning,” promising to call a bench minor the next time the coach let curses fly. They even shook on it.
The next year, when Crawford was with the Avalanche and was irate after Fraser called a penalty on Adam Foote, an immediate bench minor was added. When Colorado’s Claude Lemieux complained, Fraser gave him one message for Crawford: “Just tell (Crawford), ‘Florida.’ He’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
“And that was the last issue we ever had.”
There is a sense that the collegial coach-referee relationship has hardened somewhat. The expansion of the referee pool when the league began using two on-ice referees in the late 1990s (which became the full-time system in 2000) might be part of the reason. Also part of it could be that the pool of officials has turned over significantly in the past decade, the old guard giving way to younger, faster referees.
“When I played, I’ve talked to a lot of former referees, and the relationship between the player and the referee and the coach and the referee just felt better,” Wild GM Bill Guerin said. “I think it needs to improve. Everybody’s out there just doing their best.
“Those guys had thick skin back then. You could say something, then patch things up, and you treated each other with respect.”
Maurice said he was so young when he started coaching in the NHL, he didn’t say a word to the refs because he felt he didn’t have a long leash. Now, he’s built the equity “to lose it once in a while.”
“But it felt like you had better relationships, probably because there weren’t as many guys,” Maurice said. “When you had a run-in with a ref, it was almost like you got to know them better. And they would also tell you where to go. Paul Stewart would have no qualms coming over to your bench and telling you exactly what he thought of you yelling at him.
“The very best referees in our game understand the pressures that the coaches are under. They monitor how teams are coming in. They’ve lost two or three in a row, how it’s affecting their playoff positioning. They understand it.
“And in my opinion, there’s not nearly as much yelling as there used to be.”
Evason, a fiery, hard-nosed player in his day, believes teams take on the personality of their coach. If the coach is snapping all the time on the refs, players feel they have license to do the same thing. Coincidentally, while Evason has clearly tried to “communicate” rather than “scream and yell” the first two games of this season, veteran defenseman Alex Goligoski got a third-period unsportsmanlike conduct penalty Saturday in Toronto for telling referee Dan O’Rourke to “make an effing call.”
Evason felt the penalty halted momentum in an eventual loss and criticized Goligoski for the “really stupid” penalty after the game.
Coincidence or not, the Wild were one of the most penalized teams in the league last season and it continued into the playoffs. Marcus Foligno was called for three questionable penalties in Games 4 and 5, getting kicked out of Game 5 almost immediately for a dubious kneeing major.
“Deano doesn’t necessarily get pissed off unless he feels like one of us is getting treated unfairly,” Foligno said. “But at the same time, we all need to settle down with the eff-you matches against the refs. I mean, it just doesn’t help you.
“Deano is emotionally involved in the game and it almost brings us emotionally involved in the game. But you’ve got to use it toward the other team. You can’t be yelling at (referee) Tom Chmielewski.
“We addressed it (in a team meeting). We’ve just got to shut up this year with the refs.”
One veteran referee recently skated up to the Wild bench and told Evason he heard about the meeting and not to worry about it — “to just keep communicating.”
“And that’s what I’m going to try to do,” Evason said. “I’m going to try to communicate with the referees without yelling at them.
This is not the first time many of these coaches have heard that message. Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper told The Athletic last year that when he was coaching in the minors, current Los Angeles Kings coach Todd McLellan told him, “Have your video guy film you during a period — just film you.”
“And it was crazy. You look at your body language and things you’re doing on the bench, like, ‘Oh my gosh. I don’t want that to be seen,’” Cooper said. “And that was when I learned, you can’t do that in the NHL, because there’s always a camera on you.”
Relayed that anecdote, Evason smiled.
“Well, Coop made the video.”
Maurice, the apparent star of the video in that hotel ballroom, joked that we’ll see a kinder, gentler Panthers coach this season. On opening night in Minnesota earlier this month, Maurice bit his tongue a couple of times when he normally would have let the expletives fly.
“Here’s my great plan: I’m not going to yell at the referees,” Maurice said. “That’s my plan for the year. But you can monitor and see how long I can go.”
Re-drafting the NHL class of 2020: Stützle goes No. 1, Nikishin rises dramatically
(Graphic: John Bradford / The Athletic, with photos from Len Redkoles, Josh Lavallee, Bruce Kluckhohn, Jeff Vinnick and Rich Graessle / Getty Images)