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The Gag Rule: NHL Policy on Criticizing Officials

When it comes to offering an opinion about the on-ice product of the NHL from a coach’s, player’s or manager’s perspective, the officials rank right up there with Elvis Presley’s Blue Suede Shoes. You can scream at them to their face, call them names, make sarcastic remarks and assign tons of blame. You can do anything that you want to do, but honey lay off the officials during a post-game presser.

Post-game comments in the media scrums by coaches, players and general managers are tightly policed by the league. Rule 39 regarding Abuse of Officials provides the guidance for assessing minor penalties DURING a game. However, there is no official policy regarding post game comments. It appears to be understood that you don’t go there unless you have money to burn.

The following is a transcript of what cost Boston Bruins Head Coach, Bruce Cassidy, $25,000 following Game 5 of the East Division final against the New York Islanders.

“I think what happens, and this is my take on it, is we’re playing a team that has very respected management, coaching staff. They won a Stanley Cup. But I think they sell a narrative over there that it’s more like the New York Saints, not the New York Islanders. They play hard, they play the right way, but I feel we play the same way. The exact calls that are getting called on us do not get called on them, and I don’t know why. These are very good officials. They’re at this point in the season for a reason. Maybe we need to sell them more, flop, but that’s not us. You just hope they see them. The same calls go against us. It’s not like I’m sitting there going, ‘Every call against us sucks.’ That’s not true.

“It’s just at the end of the day, the similar plays, they need to be penalized on those plays. But like I said, I think they’ve done a great job selling that narrative that they’re clean. They play hard, a hard brand of hockey. Love the way they play, but they commit as many infractions as we do, trust me. It’s just a matter of calling them. That’s the part that I guess gets frustrating, but you play through it.”

Whether or not you agree with the comments that were made, I would challenge anyone to find something in that monologue that warrants losing $25,000.00. Whether or not Cassidy ever actually pays it or whether the Bruins pony it up on his behalf will never be known. I also understand the premise behind this unofficial policy. There needs to be a way of preventing frustrated coaches, managers and even players from attacking someone’s credibility or personal integrity or slandering officials with baseless accusations.

Is that what you read in that comment? Me neither.

In fact, I read him more than once acknowledging the fact that the referees are good and they are in the playoffs for a reason.

We have all seen coaches throughout the league blow a fuse on the bench where even the most inexperienced lip reader can tell what is being said with no minor penalties assessed. If Rule 39.2 of the official NHL rule book were enforced as diligently by the officials during the games, the entire game would be played at 3 on 3.

I am not advocating for all coaches and general managers to have free rein to say what they want about whomever they want. Some of the fines that are handed out are well deserved. The New York Rangers being fined $250,000 for their public assault on George Parros and openly questioning his fitness to hold his job was wholly inappropriate in my opinion. Ironically, I believe their point had merit. The league did make a mistake in handling the Tom Wilson incident. However, their comments were very personal in nature and completely lacking in any constructive content. The intent was clearly to smear George Parros to the world at large.

I do, however, think the fine for Cassidy’s comments, and others like them, speaks to a larger muzzle that exists in today’s politically correct society that everyone in the NHL has been fitted for.

The sound bites before, during and after NHL practices and games have become laughably cookie-cutter. The first 3 three words of almost every answer from a player during an intermission interview or post game scrum are “Yeah, for sure.” Often, the question doesn’t even get answered as the usual cliché responses get offered instead. The players seem about as interested and engaged in doing these interviews as they might be about a root canal. They have taught these people to say nothing. Now teach them how to say something but to say it respectfully. Clearly, they either don’t know how, are not allowed or both.

Finally, a coach/general manager/player had something meaningful to say after a game that was honestly how he felt, and the NHL wants to discourage the practice. It’s as if the league is trying to hide the fact that NHL officials are human and make mistakes. This doesn’t make me respect the league more. I feel quite the opposite. I am being asked to believe the sincerity of these interactions when no one could reasonably do so. I, for one, find the willingness of someone to speak freely and respectfully about how they feel somewhat refreshing.

Both Canada and the United States have documents guaranteeing free speech. Yet, somehow, the NHL has managed to have an unwritten rule in both countries allowing them to muzzle someone who is simply making his feelings known in a very diplomatic way – and take his money while they're at it. I know employment contracts can have clauses to prevent employees from saying false things about their employers or attacking them in the media. I am also not naïve enough to think that just because a coach doesn’t work for the league means he is not bound by their code of conduct. I just find it ironic that the league can also mandate players and coaches to be available to the media after practices and games and not allow them to say how they really feel, even in a respectful manner.

Like I said, this isn’t just an NHL, NFL, NBA and MLB problem. This is a society problem. Rather than teaching people how to make their argument respectfully and articulately, they are being taught to not answer the question at all.

In fairness to the officials, no one asks them what they think of the coach’s, manager’s and player’s comments. They get no opportunity to retort. I also need to be fair to the players who are getting interviewed in a language other than their native one. Those cliches are probably life savers for them. Asking them to eloquently express their views on the controversial moments of a game could backfire badly.

From a marketing perspective, this is something the league should address. Those sound bites are a huge opportunity for the league to promote its brand and the people playing in it. This is true even if something critical is said. Players who stand before the microphone also have an opportunity to project themselves as potential spokespeople who might be able to drive revenue for the league and themselves by creating an image of the league as more than just a bunch of muscle-bound jocks who can read cue cards.

Of course, the flip side to the argument would be that if you want better answers, you need to ask better questions. Almost as laughable as the answers, are the pre-programmed questions being put to the players. Tell me if these questions sound familiar:

  • Can you give us your impressions of the first 20 minutes?

  • What do you have to do to get back into the game?

  • How important was that goal towards the end of the period?

  • How important is it to stay out of the box when you play X opponent?

  • It seems like both teams are playing a tight checking game, is that what you expected?

If you want to get better answers out of the players, stop throwing them batting practice pitches as questions. Here are the same questions re-worded:

  • This is game 5 of the series, was there anything they did in that first 20 minutes that surprised you?

  • Being down 3-0, will you need to change your strategy to get back into the game or can you stay the course and still get it done?

  • Goals at the end of the period can be great for momentum. How can you make sure you don’t lose that momentum during the intermission?

  • How much confidence do you have in your penalty kill units if you end up short-handed against X opponent?

  • Your team is known for its offensive flair, did you make a conscious choice to focus more defensively in that 1st period?

So? What is the solution? It’s easier said than done to educate people on how to express their opinions constructively when they are likely emotional about something that just happened. Teaching them to toe the line and say nothing is easier and less risky. It would also be a mistake to simply loosen the reigns without making sure coaching was given on how to say what needs to be said. Being a gifted hockey player doesn’t make them a gifted orator by extension.

I think it behooves Gary Bettman and Bill Daly to start trusting the players, coaches and managers he counts on to provide the on-ice product to comment on it in a diplomatic, yet forthright manner. This is done through training. I would enjoy seeing a player look excited about doing an interview. The way to do this is to show them how. It wouldn’t require hours and hours of training. Giving them a sandbox to play in with clear guidelines about topics or behaviours to avoid is key. It would also require some patience and understanding that mistakes might be made and those mistakes shouldn’t automatically cost $25,000. Players might gravitate to interviews if they thought there were something in it for them such as potential off-ice marketing, or even positioning themselves as potential coaches and managers in their post-playing career.

Until a change in direction is made, better questions are asked, and honest answers are allowed, do you think interviews and sound bites will continue to be used as bathroom breaks and opportunities to refill your mug?


By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey



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