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How will no Fans Impact Referees?

Written by: Noah Foster

“The call on the ice stands, NO GOAL!” As the words pass through the referee’s microphone and into the stadium’s speakers, a chorus of boos ring out from 20,000 fans. As the puck is dropped, chants of “REF YOU SUCK” echo through the building.

No fans in the stadium doesn't just affect the players. Referees and linesmen are constantly influenced by fans of the home crowd. As a youth hockey referee myself, I find it difficult sometimes to make a call against a large home crowd that I know will yell and jeer at me if I do. So there are times when I don't call a penalty that should have been called, or wave off an offsides call that probably was actually offsides. Even though we are trained to not be affected by the crowd, they still can get in referees’ heads. Still don't understand? Check out this clip from the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, where the entirety of Rogers Arena in Vancouver is screaming at the referee.

The head referee and two linesmen come together to discuss a call. Photo: TSN

There are two types of feedback referees get from the fans: negative and positive. Negative feedback is where fans boo and express their dissatisfaction with a call made. Positive feedback is where fans applaud and show their appreciation for a call on the ice. Both of them influence the way a referee makes calls, but depending on the person wearing the stripes, one might be more powerful than the other. But with no fans, neither of those influences will be present during the 2020 playoffs.

Usually, there are three types of calls that are difficult for a referee. These consist of penalties, offsides, and goals/no goals. Penalties are the most difficult in my opinion. They cannot be reviewed, therefore, a referee must decide a) if the play does warrant a penalty called and b) what severity that penalty will incur. Plus, this decision must happen within about a second of the play occurring. Here’s a scenario for you to play along with at home. A player from the away team lays a big hit on a player from the home team around the shoulders. A scrum ensues right after, and the play is blown dead. The fans see the hit and react with boos and yelling for a penalty. As the referee, your first reaction might be that the hit was clean and there should be no penalty. But as the fans continue to yell, you start to doubt yourself, and was it really around the shoulders or was it around the head? You end up calling a penalty, and the home team scores on that powerplay. So now the score, the momentum of the game, and the entire mood in the stadium is shifted because of that one call. And maybe that team wins the game, and maybe that’s the one game they needed to win to make the playoffs. I could go on and on, but there is such a butterfly effect for these extremely important calls.

Wes McCauley, probably the most well-known NHL referee, announces a hooking call to the whole stadium. Photo: The Denver Post

Goals/no goals are another extremely difficult call for referees. Many times, the goal in question is because of a scrum in front of the net, with a possible goaltender interference call or illegal touching of the puck that could nullify the goal. Since goaltender interference is such a vague and unclear rule (I could go on a whole rant about that but I’ll save that), we’ll choose an example where a player for the home team allegedly kicked it into the net. As the referee, you see the play live and wave it off, ruling it to be a kicking motion, and therefore, no goal. As you and your fellow referee look at the replay, it also plays on the jumbotron. The home crowd, seeing the replay from an angle where it looks as though the player’s stick hit it in, starts cheering and chanting, “GOAL! GOAL! GOAL!” You and your partner, seeing the same replay and hearing the roar of the crowd, start to doubt the original call and decide to call it a goal. And then we go down the whole path of what happens next again.

The final one, offsides, is a call linesmen have to make, and usually get the most backlash for. The scenarios are very difficult to describe in words, but I recommend looking up “hockey missed offsides calls” and look at some of the examples. It’s clear how difficult a call that is already, but with the crowd cheering for one outcome, it makes a linesman's job that much tougher.

An NHL linesman waves off an offsides call during a game. Photo: NHL.com

Fans have a much bigger impact on the game than just helping the home team stay energized. They make referees’ lives a psychological battle between the crowd’s wishes and the referee’s decisions. Without tens of thousands of people in the stands influencing referees, I expect this year’s playoffs to be the most fairly called playoffs ever.

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