Hot Off the Ice

Here be record of the thrills, the comedy and the tragedy, encountered by the National Hockey League's referee-in-chief during twenty years spent “ behind the whistle"

COOPER SMEATON January 15 1930

Hot Off the Ice

Here be record of the thrills, the comedy and the tragedy, encountered by the National Hockey League's referee-in-chief during twenty years spent “ behind the whistle"

COOPER SMEATON January 15 1930

Hot Off the Ice

Here be record of the thrills, the comedy and the tragedy, encountered by the National Hockey League's referee-in-chief during twenty years spent “ behind the whistle"


As told to Frederick Edwards

SOMEONE, Shakespeare perhaps, once made the statement that the onlooker sees most of the game. He was mistaken. The chap who sees most of the game is the referee.

The logic of this is obvious if you stop to think about it. In competitive sports three elements are present: the players, the spectators and the officials. The attention of the player is concentrated upon the progress of the game as it affects the fortunes of his side, and especially as he himself is involved. The spectators are located at some distance from the battlefield and, in many cases their vision is blurred by an intense partisanship. The referee suffers from none of these handicaps. He is on top of every move made by all the athletes on both sides, and he doesn’t care who wins.

It is as simple as that, but you will find few rabid fans who will admit it. That is all right with me. The loyal support of the intensely partisan spectator, to whom every hockey game is a triumph if his team wins, and a tragedy if it loses, makes possible the amazing present progress of our great winter game— the fastest and finest of all games played by mankind—and, personally, I hope he goes right on having a good time.

Let me say one thing at the beginning. After twenty years of whistle handling in hockey games—I have been a referee in the major professional leagues since 1913, and before that was an amateur league official— I am entirely convinced that the brand of hockey now being shown in the National Hockey League is the fastest the game has ever seen. It provides more thrills for the spectators, demands quicker, more astute thinking by managers, and requires more from the players than any hockey which went before it. Some of the old-timers will take violent issue with me on this, and well I know it. Nevertheless, that is my sincere conviction. What’s more, I think that the steady increase in attendance at hockey games, amateur and professional, during the past few years amply establishes my claim. People do not pay good money to see poor hockey.

Further, I am satisfied that the marked improvement in the style of hockey which has developed since I first came into the game, over the sort we used to play in the old days, is due very largely to the influence of the professional organizations. I am no foe of amateur sport. Years ago I played amateur hockey myself; but hockey history shows that it has been the professional organizations striving always, as they must, to provide the best entertainment possible for the fans who make their huge investments possible, which have blazed the trail the amateurs have followed, and which has brought hockey to its present pre-eminent position.

It was the professional leagues which first experimented with the six-man game, dropping the unnecessary rover from the line-up and so opening up play. It was the professional leagues which first introduced the colored lines marking offside areas. This year it was the National Hockey League which brought into existence rules to reduce the possibilities of offside to a minimum, making the play faster, and eliminating a whole lot of whistle blowing and consequent delay which in the past has interrupted the spectators’ enjoyment of the game.

In these matters the amateurs have followed the lead of the professional organizations.

When it comes to acting in an official capacity on the ice, there is no comparison between the amateur and professional leagues. Leaving money out of the question entirely, I do not hesitate to say that any qualified official would vastly prefer to work for the pro clubs. There I speak from experience.

Twenty Years With the Whistle

ALTHOUGH I was born in Ontario, my family moved to Montreal while I was still a school kid, and all my early hockey experience was gained in that city. I played for the old Westmount team, for the now extinct Montreal Stars, and for other clubs. I turned to refereeing in the years just before the war, and ever since I have been connected with what I suppose you might call the law enforcement end of the pastime. I still handle a whistle when the occasion seems to require it, although, naturally, having a vast amount of routine work to do in connection with my position as referee-inchief of the N.H.L., I prefer when possible to watch the games from the side.

It was during the 1913-1914 season that I first joined the professional league. Then, Emmett Quinn was president of the old National Hockey Association, and Emmett it was who gave me my first assignment. Previously I had refereed for two or three seasons for various organizations local to Montreal. Sometimes I was in as many as three games a night at the old Montreal Arena, and in the Jubilee and Coliseum rinks, and sometimes I had six nights a week of it.

My first game was a tough struggle between the old Montreal Wanderers, under Sam Lichtenhein’s ownership, and the Canadiens, who were then controlled by the late George Kennedy. Rivalry between the two teams was intense, just as it is today between Canadiens and Maroons, and just as it always will be between teams which represent the racial difference in the population of Montreal.

I was nervous. Any official who tells you that he is entirely calm before he goes out to handle his first professional game is talking horse feathers. He knows that the crowd will be larger than he has been used to; that feeling will run higher among the spectators; that the players he will have to handle will be faster; faster skaters, faster thinkers, faster stick handlers. Faster in every way, and more experienced. He knows, too, that they, fully aware of his newness to the professional game, will be looking for a chance to put something over on him. Hockey players are like that. I wouldn’t have ’em any other way.

Harvey Pulford was in charge of that game. I was judge of play, or assistant referee, as we call them today. That is, I had complete authority, but my decisions might in extreme cases be reversed by my chief.

My First Game

IADMIT that I was sweating when we lined up. Th( big, yelling, intensely partisan crowd roared continu ously, and I couldn’t get it out of my head that they wen roaring at me. Actually, of course, not one in ten o them even knew my name.

Once the game got under way, nervousness droppel from me like a winter overcoat in April. I forgot every thing but the play, and the necessity for keeping a ver.' sharp eye on every turn of it. That, I think, is th experience of almost all officials in big games. Whit the play is on they are entirely absorbed in it; so mucl so that they rarely even hear the recriminations am insults shouted at them by rabid fans lined along th boards. Certainly they do not hear anything which ma; be directed at their ears by folks in boxes or beyond An awful lot of choice invective goes to waste at ever; hockey game.

Play had been on for about five minutes when i became my duty to penalize my first professional hocke expert. It was a tough job because, as luck had it, th man was Newsy Lalonde, then at the peak of his caree as a player and the idol of Canadien fans.

I caught Newsy in what I considered an infraction e the rules, and promptly ordered him to the penalt bench for three minutes.

He gave me an argument. That was inevitable. An other player would have done the same to a green refere'

Of course, I took no notice of his argument, but sayin nothing, continued to wave him toward the bend Meanwhile play was held up. Canadien supporters a over the rink were shouting uncomplimentary remarl at me. Newsy got hot. Skating toward the penalty bench, he hurled a couple of choice remarks at me which were outside the code. I followed him to the bench and told him:

“That will cost you a ten dollar fine.”

“What for?” George Kennedy wanted to know.

“For questioning a decision and for swearing,” I replied.

That was the end of the incident so far as I was concerned. It was not at all important, except to me, as the first occasion in which I was called upon to inflict a penalty on a major league professional player. Newsy and I are good friends, and always have been.

Years afterward I was told that George Kennedy had instructed his players:

“Lay off this guy Smeaton. He’s bad medicine.”

It is a fact that since that first game the Canadien players have given me, personally, as little trouble as any club in the league.

A REFEREE has at times to be not only a fast skater, but something of a trick skater, too. He may at any moment be forced to hurdle sticks, climb on the fence, or instantly reverse his direction in order to get out of the way of a play. At that we get plenty of cracks on the shins—perhaps not all of them strictly accidental. Any earnest athlete gets a chuckle out of the notion of smacking a referee across the instep and getting away with it.

I have tumbled over the fences into the crowds a score of times, as have all experienced referees. Last year on New Year’s Day I was handling a CanadienAmerican game in Madison Square Garden, when I slipped getting out of the way of a pair of tussling skaters, went over on my face, and got up with a broken ankle. A clever surgeon repaired the damage and put my foot in a plaster cast in my hotel room; but the accident cost me eight weeks of inactivity, and I was barely able to get back into the game for the play-offs.

It is vital also that a referee must have absolute control of his temper at all times. If he cannot control himself, he cannot control players, and that’s all there is to it.

Sometimes it’s a tough job, especially for a high-strung, conscientious official. The crowds are worse than the players, and the individuals who lean over the rail and hurl insults and abuse into the ear of the official as he passes are worst of all.

Many years ago, handling an amateur game at the old Jubilee Rink, I went over the fence into the crowd to get at one especially nasty gentleman; but after the incident was over, I felt heartily ashamed of myself, and never since then have I taken the slightest notice of anything shouted at me by the most rabid of fans.

On one other occasion I confess I took great pleasure in administering a good healthy pasting to one of these chaps with unbridled tongues, but the circumstances were different. This incident happened in Toronto and the offender was, of all people, an usher employed by the Toronto Arena. He burst into the dressing room after the game and assailed me with the filthiest adjectives he could lay tongue to. In the seclusion of the dressing room I permitted myself the luxury of socking him on the jaw. I was in a hurry to catch my train, but I took time out for that little piece of work, nevertheless. I didn’t miss the train, either.

In fairness to this chap I must admit that he had the good grace later to apologize. Since then he has been one of my warmest supporters in Toronto. As far as I know he is still working for the rink; but he doesn’t go in for abuse of referees any more.

It goes without saying that a referee must have quick eyesight, allied to sound and instant judgment. Accidents are inevitable in any competitive sport, and the referee must be able to know at once whether, when two players come together in a hard check and one is hurt, the injury was deliberately inflicted or merely a mischance. A penalty imposed because of an accidental injury leaves the player with a sense of injustice, and a disposition to get his own back, which may easily lead to much trouble later.

TN GAMES where for one or another I reason feeling runs high, it may be necessary for the officials in the beginning to keep a closer check on petty offenses than would be the case in a game where the feeling was less tense. A few extra strict penalties right at the beginning of such a contest may save a riot later on. We had a recent example of this in the present season. Maroons and Boston had played a rough-and-tumble game in Montreal, in the course of which Eddie Shore, the burly Boston defense man, was hurt. The Boston newspapers and the Boston fans, not to mention the Boston management, were all steamed up about it. There were threats of reprisals in the game between Maroons and Boston on Boston ice a few days later. I handled that game myself, warned the boys that I’d penalize the slightest infraction of the rules, and the result was one of the mildest games of the season. The players knew that I meant what I said.

Of course, a referee must be strictly impartial. So far as N.H.L. officials are concerned, I am satisfied that they have absolutely no club leanings, and I consider that any contrary suggestion is unjust and entirely baseless. The referees owe the clubs nothing. Some years ago, when the clubs picked their own referees and judges of play, things may have been different. There was always a danger under that system that the officials might be disposed to favor the club appointing them, or on the other hand might lean backward in an effort to avoid such favoritism, which would be just as bad. Today the League appoints the referees, or rather I do in consultation with President Calder, and the clubs have no voice in the matter. Obviously, that is the better plan.

Present day hockey, as played in the major leagues, is cleaner than in the earlier years of the game. For one thing, the ice surfaces are larger and the players not so constantly in personal contact. The game is better controlled, too. Even the crowds today, despite the disposition on the part of individual fans to get out of hand from time to time, do not display the mob tactics which we used to see.

FOR some reason which I admit I was never able to fathom, Quebec crowds of former years seemed to make a habit of staging a riot after every game which the local athletes lost. The Quebec rink is reached by way of a long bridge, and it was the quaint custom of the enraged supporters of the local club to arm themselves with coal and wait for the visiting players at the end of the bridge, which they had to cross to get to their bus. On one occasion when Quebec had an entry in the old National Hockey Association, I recall handling a Quebec-Ottawa contest which was lost to the habitants by a close score. Crossing the bridge the players of the Ottawa team carried their sticks with them for protection. It was lucky they did, for the enraged fans laid down a particularly hot anthracite barrage. One chunk as big as my fist was aimed with deadly precision at the face of Benedict, who was then the Ottawa goalkeeper. Had it reached its mark it would have spoiled Benny’s beauty for keeps, but he saw it coming and batted it away with his big goaltender’s stick as smoothly as though it had been a puck.

They still throw things, of course; mighty queer things sometimes. One cold night last winter, the ushers at the Montreal Forum detected a husky enthusiast who was dragging a huge sack of frozen turnips up the stairs leading to the rush seats. Since there seemed to be no adequate reason why anyone should take a bag of turnips to a hockey game unless he intended to use them as missiles, the vegetable-minded gentleman was asked to check his turnips until after the game. He never returned for them.

Perhaps Boston holds the championship for freak ammunition. I was refereeing a game there last winter, when without warning a bulky parcel wrapped in brown paper came hurtling through the air at my head, fell on the ice and broke open, exposing a large and juicy sirloin steak. Presumably some frantic fan in the heat of an exceptionally frenzied outburst had sacrificed his Sunday dinner to the expression of his emotions. I hope his wife spoke to him severely about it.

Coins are frequently tossed into the arenas. Flasks, too, even silver ones; and I never heard of any flask hurler who had the nerve to ask for the return of his property. Papers and programmes of course are commonplaces; but the worst pest of all is the chap who hurls glass on the ice. Apart entirely from the danger of injury should a bottle connect with the head of a player or an official, there is the difficulty of scraping the ice and removing every splinter of broken glass. Personally I would place a criminal charge of attempted assault against every bottlepitching jackass I could identify; but it is not easy to obtain supporting evidence.

"VÆISUSE of the stick on the person of an opponent instead of against the puck is the commonest and the most serious offense, and one for which a good referee is always on the watch. Except in moments of great stress, such misconduct is usually done on the sly. Butt-ending, the quick jab of the blade over the shoulder toward an opponent’s head, the practice of sticking a knee into an onrushing player’s mid-section, these are tricks which every old-timer knows, and which most of them can make appear accidental. Smaller men, when up against a burlier rival, become especially adept in the gentle art of using the butt.

But, generally speaking, it is my opinion that deliberate dirty play is less frequent than in the old days, and that the socalled “bad men” of hockey exist largely in the imaginations of the sports writers. The late Joe Hall, one of the most celebrated of “bad men,” was as mild and inoffensive a chap as you could wish to meet off the ice, and it is my impression that a lot of his antics on the ice were deliberately theatrical, or used to alibi himself for being outsmarted by another player.

Many big defense players get undeserved reputations for dirty play, simply because they are big and clumsy.

Actually a very large percentage of the scraps which occasionally erupt on the ice are spectator-inspired. Two men crash together in a struggle for the puck, rebound and glare at each other. A bloodthirsty fan, usually the sort of chap who would run a mile if you made a face at him, yells from the boards: “Hit him on the head, the big bum!” and the player obeys that impulse. Fans are fans, and hockey wouldn’t be the game it is if they were otherwise; but sometimes I wish it were possible to gag the pest who is always howling for gore. I have stopped more than one wild swing which was aimed at a hockey player’s head on just such occasions as I have described, and I suffered acute embarrassment in one game, when I had the leg of my trousers ripped off me as I separated a pair of belligerents who had been-nagged into conflict by a girl who really ought to have known better.

'YrES, a lot of funny things happen in hockey. There was the freak goal in the play-offs last spring which helped Boston to get into the Stanley Cup games, and later win the series. The Bruins were playing New York Ranger. John Ross Roach Was in Rangers’ goal, when a high shot passed over his head, hit the wire netting behind the goal, bounded back against Roach’s shoulders, and dropped into the net.

Football presents many cases of players, suffering from a temporary concussion, playing for some time in an unconscious state and functioning in purely automatic fashion. Such things happen in hockey, too.

During the 1924-25 season, Alfie Skinner, playing for Maroons, came out of a head-on crash without his stick, which had fallen to the ice. He groped for it, picked it up by the blade and for fully two minutes chased madly up and down the ice, trying to bat the puck with the butt. He simply didn’t know what he was doing.

On another occasion, in a MaroonCanadien game, Howie Morenz was heavily checked by the burly Dune Munro. A moment later the puck was faced, and Howie lined up with Maroons against his own side. It took a few moments of argument before he could be persuaded that he was on the wrong team.

Such incidents are not always the result of a crash between two players. They can happen from sheer excitement. In a Toronto-Canadien game I remember well, “Rusty” Crawford, sent into the game as a substitute, got himself turned round, grabbed a loose puck, and skated the length of the ice—in the wrong direction. He was just on the point of shooting at his own goal, when the frenzied yells of the Toronto players brought him to the realization of his error.

Some of the side-line fans have a ready wit. Maroons once had a Jewish player named Sammy Rothchild who was famous as a keen business man. Skating toward a loose puck one night at top speed, Rothchild halted as he reached the spot where the puck was lying, and hesitated for a moment as he looked around for a place to play it. From a promenade chair a loud voice advised him:

“Grab it, Sammy. It’s a bargain.”

Another smart, if rather unkind remark, is credited to Sprague Cleghorn. A particularly dumb player, whose name it would be more merciful to conceal, was making a holy show of himself in a game when his team was short of substitutes. His antics on the ice more than supported his previous reputation for sheer stupidity. In a scuffle he stuck his face against the end of somebody’s stick, and opened a small cut on his cheek.

He was patched up on the bench and returned to the game with a strip of plaster over the trifling wound. A minute or so later he blundered again to an opponent’s stick and gashed his face on the other cheek.

“There,” said Sprague, “goes his other brain.”

ON the whole, though, crowds, and especially the modern crowds, are fair to visiting clubs, and eager to applaud smart hockey or a spectacular piece of individual play. When, in the Stanley Cup series of 1927-28, Lester Patrick, the grey-haired veteran manager of New York Rangers, put on pads and went into the goals against Maroons, after Lome Chabot, his regular goalkeeper, had been temporarily blinded by a flying puck which cut his eye open, the Maroon fans gave him an ovation which outdid anything he had ever received in his long career. Rangers had no substitute goaler. Patrick had not played hockey in a league game for years, and his courage and sportsmanship aroused the ordinarily hostile fans to a tremendous outburst of enthusiasm. Incidentally, his action inspired his team, too, for they played hockey in the remaining part of the game like a team of wildcats, to beat out Maroons, and later to win the cup.

People who do not know what they are talking about may be heard from time to time making the statement that there is no sportsmanship among professional hockey players; that all they are interested in is money. This is entirely untrue. I can recall hundreds of cases illustrating the good sportsmanship of pro players toward opponents, and the good feeling which exists even among the keenest of rivals, off the ice.

Last winter, “Ching” Johnson, the bulky New York Rangers defense man, broke a leg in a Montreal game. Later, “Happy” Day suffered a similar accident. Both men were at various times in the Western Hospital in Montreal while their injuries mended. There was not a single club that came to Montreal during that period, but that every player took time off to visit Johnson and Day. Sometimes they spent hours with them, talking, of course, hockey.

Moreover, the team spirit is keener in professional hockey than critics of the game credit. Especially under the new rules, selfish play is poor play, and only a thoroughly unselfish player ready to sacrifice personal achievement for the sake of his team can make good. Most modern goalkeepers, from their position in the nets keep up a constant chatter of encouragement to the players in front of them. “Flat” Walsh, of Maroons, is an example of this, and Walsh’s constant rallying cry is “Come on, gang!”

The sportsmanship of the veteran player is often exemplified by his encouragement of new recruits. When a rookie makes good the whole team rejoices, and when he gets his first goal—the high spot in every new player’s experience—the whole team will gather round to congratulate him. It is my sincere opinion that the spirit of sportsmanship between professional players is just as high as it is with amateur clubs—sometimes higher.

The professional game is on the level, too, and don’t let any nitwit tell you different. There are some people whose minds are so fouled with suspicion that they think the Great War was a fake; they’d cheat at solitaire. In all my experience I never remember a game which had the remotest indication of dishonesty connected with it. Players and managements alike have too much at stake to permit crookedness to creep in, considering the matter merely from the material angle, and disregarding entirely the question of the integrity of the individuals, which, I may say, is always higher than that of their traducers.

It is a great game, a fine game, and a game which is worthy of the tremendous public support it has received during the past few years. There is no winter spectacle to compare with it, and personally I am proud to be connected with it.

It gets hold of a man, this great Canadian ice sport. It has me tied tight, and I suppose I shall be out there with a whistle or in the office discussing things with referees and officials, as long as the National Hockey League cares to let me stick around.