Call 'em as you see 'em

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:55 AM ET


 You had to know it was coming. It happens at least once each playoff season, and usually more often than that.

 But here we were, all the way to Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final and there hadn't been a single major officiating controversy.

 Now, the streak is over.

 In Calgary, the opinion is universal. Game 4 on Monday was not lost by the Flames, it was lost by the officiating tandem of Kerry Fraser and Brad Watson.

 With a different crew, the Flames would be leading the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-1 in the series. Instead, it's 2-2, after the Lightning's 1-0 win at the Saddledome.

 It's easy to understand the frustration in Calgary, but the anger is misdirected. They're shooting the messengers.

 Look at the first controversial call. The Flames' Mike Commodore hauls down Freddy Modin. During the mandatory post-whistle scrum, there are exchanges of slashes, shoves and cross-checks.

 But a cross-check delivered by Chris Clark is aimed at the head of the Lightning's Nolan Pratt. Clark himself takes a cross-check to the back in retaliation, in front of Fraser. But the referees have been told to crack down on head shots, so Clark gets the only call. Moments earlier, Calgary's Martin Gelinas suffered such a debilitating cross-check to the upper body that he could hardly make it back to the bench. But it wasn't a head shot. It was ignored.

 Everyone knew the importance of that penalty to Clark. Given a two-man advantage, it was almost an automatic goal for the Lightning (by Brad Richards, as it turned out, at 2:48 of the first period).

 And therefore, it was almost an automatic win for a team that had an 11-2 record in games in which it scored first -- and a 7-0 record when it led after the first period.

 Common sense -- not to mention decades of hockey precedents -- would say that you don't call that second penalty. Or if you do, you offset it with a penalty to Tampa Bay.

 But referees aren't allowed to exercise that discretion anymore. The rules are mandated from above and every so often, a specific area is the target of a crackdown.

 The second controversial call was the major to Ville Nieminen, which, coming as it did with under five minutes to play, all but negated any hope of a Calgary comeback.

 This time, Watson was perceived as the villain. Fraser was at the scene and didn't even call a penalty, let alone a major. From the far side of the rink, Watson called a major.

 At the urging of his teammates, the Lightning's Vincent Lecavalier stayed on the ice until the major was awarded. Then he got up and skated to the bench, not looking particularly woozy.

 The Tampa players said they urged Lecavalier to stay down for his health, not to get a call. But at the same time, they knew that staying down was the best course of action.

 The referees are so intensely scrutinized that they'll impose the maximum penalty if a blow to the head is involved.

 Therein lies the problem. It's laudable that the National Hockey League wants to crack down on head shots and improve its refereeing.

 But the league is forever taking stutter steps. It promises a crackdown on restraint. Then it pulls back.

 It promises more room for stars to operate, then allows them to be bull-dogged. You can tear a guy's knee ligaments and crack his vertebra, but don't hit him on the head.

 If you don't want the referees to use discretion, then call the game from above, using cameras and replays. But if you want to use referees, then tell them to impose all the rules, not just the ones that are the flavour of the day.

 That way, after the usual period of adaptation, you'll have a lot fewer controversies and in the process, you'll find a byproduct has been created.

 The star players will be able to show what they can do.


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