NHL referees and linesmen have their own game within the job, all of them aspiring for the added prestige and pay that come with working the Stanley Cup playoffs each year.
Like the 700 or so rank-and-file players they govern each night, the guys in stripes, who number upward of 80, are considered to be the best in the world at what they do. Only eight of them, four referees and four linesmen, will be invited to work the final round each year.
“I don’t think people realize how competitive it is,” said linesman Brian Murphy, who has made it to the Cup Final nine times in his 30-plus years on the whistle. “That’s my goal every year — so it’s a competition for us, too. You have to be competitive. You have to want to be the best. I think that’s the challenge of every day is showing up and wanting to be the best.”
Murphy, 54, two weeks ago became only the eighth on-ice official in league history to reach the 2,000-game mark, when the Bruins and Blue Jackets faced off March 17 at the Garden.
The rest of the crew that night included linesman Tim Nowak and referees Wes McCauley and Chris Rooney. It was McCauley’s father, former referee and then supervisor John McCauley, who first spotted Murphy’s work at the 1986 US Olympic Sports Festival in Houston.
Murphy, just weeks removed from graduation at the University of New Hampshire, was working the games that would help the Yanks select the team that would play in the 1988 Olympics. John McCauley was there to find officiating talent that he could recruit to the NHL. The 6-foot-3-inch kid from Dover, N.H., caught his eye.
“The first game he saw me work,” recalled Murphy, “the guy in charge of USA Hockey officiating, Mark Rudolph, came down to the room between periods and says, ‘Murph, how far do you live from Portland, Maine?’ I go, ‘I live an hour.’ He goes, ‘You’ll be working the American League next year.’ ”
Rudolph, now working in real estate in Colorado, was at the Garden for Murphy’s 2,000th game. Murphy was also accompanied in a pregame ceremony by wife Lisa, and their daughters, Casey and Shayna. Stephen Walkom, the NHL’s director of officiating, also was part of the ceremony, along with Murphy’s lone sibling, Mike, who is six years older. As the older brother, Mike Murphy set the rules of play in their childhood games, which made Brian the goaltender.
“Everybody asks me, what is it that makes pro athletes special?” said Murphy. “The biggest thing, I say, is that they are so competitive. My brother’s that way. When we were kids, that was one of the things he taught me. He never let me win, but actually that was a good thing. I say that with all due respect. I don’t think I would have made it to the NHL without him because he taught me how to work hard and how you always want to win.”
Murphy went to UNH in the fall of 1982 and soon began working men’s league’s games at the local rink. His big break came when John McCauley spotted him less than four years later, and he has now worked in the NHL for 32 years. He will retire after next season.
The NHL he entered had 21 teams and the game was played at a pace considerably slower than that of today’s 31-team league. Speed dictates virtually everything in today’s game, including the demands on the officiating crew. To keep pace, noted Murphy, he has constantly changed his workout regimen, and also altered his diet, trimming his weight from 238 to 208 in recent years.
What does 32 years on the whistle mean?
“It means I made a lot of mistakes,” said Murphy. “But we are in the business of getting it right. The last thing you want to do is make mistakes. We obviously make decisions that affect the outcome of the game. The last thing you want to do is make a mistake.”
When the NHL adopted the two-referee system some 20 years ago, Murphy worked 88 games as a referee over the course of two seasons but ultimately returned to his linesman role. He decided it was the job that suited him best, with more than 10 years of job habits deeply engrained.
No matter the role, said Murphy, the greatest challenge of the official is to think while on the job, in the moment, with the action playing out at a pace that sometimes can be impossible to follow from the stands or through a TV lens.
“I think that’s what’s missing in the game sometimes,” Murphy said. “It’s one thing to be out there making decisions, but you’ve got to be out there thinking as an official. It’s not all black and white out there. I try to tell that to our younger officials. And it’s also about the relationships. You’ve got to have a relationship with these guys, because they have to trust that you’re doing the right thing. But by the same token, you have to have the ability in a high-pressure game, in a high moment, to go up to them and have them listen to you. That’s all built through relationships and time. I treasure the fact that I have a lot of good relationships with players in the league.”
Murphy said he has logged more than 4,000 hotel nights on the job. A business major at UNH, he also earned his MBA recently via online study with Southern New Hampshire University.
“The ceremony [for game 2,000] was overwhelming,” he said. No one goes into officiating to be recognized.”
Kovalchuk not on Kings’ trip
A curious, underwhelming end-of-season kick for the dispirited Kings, who took to the road this past week for a three-game Canadian swing (Calgary-Edmonton-Vancouver) and left prized shooter Ilya Kovalchuk home to work on his skills.
“Lack of practice time on this trip,” general manager Rob Blake told the Los Angeles Times. “Better to stay [in LA] and get good work done with our skills and development group.”
This is the same Kovalchuk, once among the most-feared gunners in the game, who was in talks to sign with the Bruins last June as an unrestricted free agent. But GM Don Sweeney balked at offering him more than a two-year deal, allowing the Kings to filch him off the market for three years/$18.75 million. Kovalchuk’s production to date: a lukewarm 14-17—31 in 60 games, numbers befitting an AHL third-line call-up.
The Kings entered the final week of the regular season in a virtual dead heat with Anaheim for scoring futility, both clubs challenged to finish with 200 goals in 82 games. SoCal has become a petrified goal-scoring forest.
What do the Kings do now with Kovalchuk?
Per capfriendly.com, the deal came with a two-year no-movement clause, with the Kings able to request a seven-team trade list ahead of only his final season (2020-21). It’s likely Boston would make his list and equally likely that Kovalchuk would be willing, if not eager, to provide that list now, a year ahead of schedule. That could change if, as expected, the Kings don’t bring back Willie Desjardins as coach and put someone behind the bench who better utilizes whatever remains in Kovalchuk’s tool kit (his shot remains his No. 1 power tool).
“After Willie came here,” a blunt Kovalchuk recently told the LA Times, “I don’t have a chance.”
Given that Sweeney last summer didn’t want to sign Kovalchuk, now with 431 goals, beyond two years, his appetite to do so now would seem, at best, minimal.
However, consider the David Backes factor. Signed here to a five-year deal in the summer of 2016, Backes this summer can be asked by management to provide an eight-team trade list. It bumps up to 15 teams prior to 2020-21. He makes $6 million a year, only $250,000 less than Kovalchuk, and is a year younger.
Like here, the Kings could utilize Backes up and down the lineup and, like here, would benefit from his leadership skills and overall generosity of team spirit. Actually, the Kings are in greater need of those latter qualities than the Bruins, who have veterans such as Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron to set the tone in the room. Backes’s overall stability, though not lost here, simply would mean more in SoCal than the West End.
Kovalchuk, meanwhile, still would be a prime candidate to plug in at David Krejci’s wing, left or right, the role that Sweeney filled in February with a deadline rental of unrestricted free agent Marcus Johansson from the Devils. Johansson ($4.75 million) is not expected to return to Boston on a new deal, though a strong playoff run has a way of altering all expectations.
A Backes-for-Kovalchuk swap could offer both players a different look for what likely will be the final two years of their careers. Kovalchuk would be coming aboard a team that again should be in the Cup mix next season. Backes, if he checked off on going to LA, would not have the championship carrot as an incentive. Which means Sweeney, who wooed Backes to come here, would have to be even more persuasive to get him to move again.
Undersized Zech has a big chance
Cooper Zech, a regular the last couple of weeks on the AHL Providence Bruins backline on a tryout deal, was named the WCHA Rookie of the Year just as he was finalizing his transition from college to pro.
The Bruins believe the 5-9 Zech has some of the same qualities of the similarly downsized Torey Krug, and that college-to-AHL grooming could be his path to the varsity, as it has turned out in Boston for Kevan Miller and, more recently, Connor Clifton.
“I think there’s certainly some of those attributes in his skill set,” said Providence GM John Ferguson Jr., acknowledging the Zech-Krug comparison. “He does see the ice well, has some good escape ability with the puck, delivers a flat pass, has good mobility. He has to add some strength and power, but for a relatively younger guy, just the one year at [Ferris State] . . . the combination of those factors represents a good, solid upside.”
Zech, also defenseman of the year at BCHL Wenatchee in 2016-17, had other clubs eager to sign him, according to Ferguson. Zech attended the Capitals’ development camp last summer. Ferguson said the Leafs and Blues had Zech on their radar prior to the Bruins taking him off the market, with an offer that turns into a two-year AHL deal beginning next season.
Headed into weekend play, Zech had a lone assist in his first six games with the WannaBs, but Ferguson has been encouraged by the play of the 20-year-old from South Lyon, Mich.
“We were able to give him an immediate opportunity at the American League level, which he grabbed ahold of,” said Ferguson. “He was able to solidify some things for us in a period when our depth was challenged.”
Much like Boston the last few weeks, the Providence backline has been battered in the second half. Bodies have been returning for the WannaBs, but Zech helped filled the void for a couple of weeks.
“He’s come in and contributed,” said Ferguson. “He’s been poised with the puck. It’s a big jump, certainly for someone of his age and stature. His first game in Lehigh, he took a couple of hard hits early. Colin McDonald (6-2, 220 pounds, age 34) got him . . . they were coming at him hard and he was no worse for wear.”
Changes bring mixed results
Seven clubs turfed their coaches during the season, and only the Blues recovered to the point of clinching a playoff berth headed into weekend play.
The high-water mark for in-season firings is 10, set in 1981-82. But seven is a hefty number, the biggest churn in the NHL since 2011-12.
The changes, including record of replacement coaches as of Friday:
Los Angeles — Dismissed John Stevens (4-8-1, .346), replaced with Willie Desjardins (24-32-8, .382).
Chicago — Dismissed Joel Quenneville (6-6-3, .500), replaced with Jeremy Colliton (28-27-7, .509)
St. Louis — Dismissed Mike Yeo (7-9-3, .447), replaced with Craig Berube (34-18-5, .640).
Edmonton — Dismissed Todd McLellan (9-10-1, .475), replaced with Ken Hitchcock (25-24-8, .509)
Philadelphia — Dismissed Dave Hakstol (12-15-4, .452), replaced with Scott Gordon (25-17-4, .587).
Anaheim — Dismissed Randy Carlyle (21-26-9, .455), replaced with Bob Murray (11-10-1, .523).
Ottawa — Dismissed Guy Boucher (27-44-6, .390), replaced with Marc Crawford (5-7-1, .423).
The Blues and Flyers made the most of the remix, and in large part because both clubs quickly installed new No. 1 goalies. In St. Louis, 25-year-old Jordan Binnington bumped Jake Allen off the job and put up numbers worthy of Vezina consideration. The Flyers, looking for an answer in net for the better part of 20 years, look like they finally found the guy they needed in Carter Hart, 20.
Ex-Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas, rarely seen or heard from since last suiting up for Dallas in the 2013-14 season, is living in Florida, according to a longtime pal. He initially moved to Colorado, then to Idaho, and recently made his way to the Sunshine State. Perhaps a sighting if Tampa Bay and Boston meet in Round 2? . . . Goalie Braden Holtby and ex-Bruins forward Brett Connolly were the only Capitals to turn down offers to meet with President Trump at the White House to honor the 2018 Cup champs. Had he not been in the minors, forward Devante Smith-Pelly also would have abstained. “The things that [Trump] spews are straight-up racist and sexist,” Smith-Pelly told Postmedia News in Canada. Connolly skipped in support of Smith-Pelly. Holtby, days prior to Monday’s visit, explained, “My family and myself, we believe in a world where humans are treated with respect regardless of your stature.” . . . Tough Monday for the Boston University Terriers, who saw four of their players, including freshman forward Joel Farabee, pack up for the pros. Farabee signed with the Flyers and was followed down Comm. Ave. by three juniors: Jake Oettinger (goalie, Dallas), Chad Krys (defenseman, Chicago), and Dante Fabbro (defenseman, Nashville). The next day, forward Oliver Wahlstrom made it one-and-done at Boston College. A first-round pick (No. 11) by the Islanders last June, Wahlstrom reported to AHL Bridgeport. From a production standpoint, his year at The Heights was underwhelming: 36 games, 8-11—19. “He had a good experience at BC, but wanted to move to professional hockey and start in the AHL and work his way up,” said agent Matt Keator. “Coach [Jerry] York and his teammates were very supportive. He realizes the challenge and embraces it.”
The Terriers late in the week lost sophomore center Shane Bowers, who signed with the Avalanche . . . Coveted Kings blue liner Drew Doughty broke character during LA’s stop in Calgary and lambasted Flames winger Matthew Tkachuk. “No respect for him, none,” said Doughty. “I respect everyone else. I’ll never talk to him off the ice. He’s not respected by most of the people in the league.” In his rookie 2016-17 season, Tkachuk decked Doughty with a sneaky elbow, catching him on the chin as Doughty closed in from behind on a check along the goal line. They don’t forget . . . Longtime Avalanche beat guy Adrian Dater is convinced Colorado will make a big UFA push to acquire the Blue Jackets’ Artemi Panarin.