Hardest to officiate? Probably hockey

May 05, 1991|By Fred Mitchell | Fred Mitchell,Chicago Tribune CbB

You make the call.

Which professional sports officials have the toughest jobs?

Baseball umpires, for the most part, focus on one play at a time -- a called ball or strike, a play at first base or a diving catch in the outfield. Everyone notices the call, and the result is duly recorded.

A football official might have to concentrate on a variety of infractions, from illegal procedure to holding (which many referees concede could be flagged on nearly every play from scrimmage). Crucial plays are subject to instant replay.

Basketball referees are instructed to whistle while they work, chasing up and down the court for indiscretions ranging from a loose-ball foul to a double dribble. Their late-game foul calls can decide championships.

And hockey officials, one slap shot to the face from retirement, must keep up in what is arguably the world's fastest team sport. Following the puck is even harder on the ice than on television.

"A lot of times, the puck will be out of the rink and already in the stands and we are looking around, watching the players," said National Hockey League referee Mark Faucette. "We still think the puck is in the rink. If I got paid for every time I lost sight of the puck, I would be a millionaire."

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If we are to call referees and umpires to task for an occasional inadvertent whistle or botched call, perhaps we should at least grant them due process before we boo.

Several variables define the jobs of officials in professional hockey, baseball, football and basketball -- speed and difficulty of the game, the susceptibility to injury, the demands of traveling, the requisite physical skill and accountability all factor in to who has the toughest job.

"Every referee says his sport is the toughest sport, but a hockey official is involved in the only sport where he is required to have a skill," Faucette said. "If you are not a good skater, you are not going to be out there."

Interviews and research support Faucette's claim. Professional hockey is the most demanding sport to officiate, ranking above basketball because of required skills and injury risk. Being on top of the action in hockey sometimes means getting out of the way to avoid being checked into the boards -- or worse.

"The hockey referee has got to watch everything, so he takes his eye off the puck quite a bit," Faucette said. "It's not just the three guys going across the line with the puck anymore. It is dumped in, and what happens is that they don't dump it in low, they dump it in high. They shoot around the glass high.

"There is constantly that fear of getting blasted by the puck as it takes a bad bank off the boards or off the glass. . . . You get the odd, stray stick or bump every now or then. But that really isn't as bad as getting hit by the puck."

Dave Newell, a 23-year NHL official who now is a league supervisor, said, "One of the reasons I am no longer on the ice is that the players are so much bigger and faster. They shoot the puck over 100 mph. In the last week I have been with probably six officials who have so many bruises over their body. . . . Most players wouldn't be playing with these injuries."

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Like the athletes themselves these days, basketball and hockey officials are involved in a year-round conditioning regimen.

National Basketball Association officials must be in peak shape, even with three men assigned to each game. Floor-length

passes and Denver Nugget-orchestrated fast breaks will wear down the best of the crew.

All officials and umpires go through some type of conditioning. In the last several years, even baseball umpires have been urged to lose weight and at least appear fit and trim.

Some of the physical demands are less obvious to the casual fan.

Recently retired NBA official Earl Strom worked 33 years in the league and chronicled his feelings in a book, "Calling the Shots."

"Someone once described refereeing as eye-brain-whistle coordination," Strom wrote. "We work with the whistle always in the mouth, ready. That's why you have inadvertent whistles on occasion. But for every call that's instantaneous, there is one where you have to suck on the whistle, wait it out, see what's really happening.

"In college and high school, if you see an infraction, boom, you're supposed to nail it right there. The beauty of refereeing professional basketball is that we can delay a half-second to determine the outcome of a particular incident. Five people go up in the air for a rebound. Do they bump? Sure. But did the guy with position who jumped the highest get the ball? If so, why call anything?

"Fans see lots of things and say we missed them. But the challenge is to determine what is really affecting the game, and the let-goes are part of it."

Travel can also be grueling. The NBA and NHL have the most draining assignments in that category. Baseball umpires at least have the luxury of remaining in a city for three or four days. Officials from the NFL are hired part-time and have only one game a week to work.

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