July 21st, 2024

‘There is a fine line’: How NHL coaches and referees navigate the emotions of a game

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on March 6, 2024.

Dave Jackson had just made what he thought was a straightforward tripping call.

Refereeing an AHL game in the late 1980s, the young official couldn’t understand why future NHL head coach Rick Bowness was upset.

Jackson skated over for a chat.

“Blatant penalty,” he recalled. “(Bowness) runs over from behind the bench to the door so his back is to the team.”

The yelling and finger-wagging continued.

“But he’s going, ‘Dave, I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at these (expletive) guys behind me. I’m just trying to show some (expletive) emotion. Won’t happen again,'” continued Jackson, who went on to have a long NHL career.

“He turns and slams the door. I had trouble keeping a straight face.”

The relationship between referee and coach can be a complicated one at the best of times.

Calls are made in a split second. There’s intense pressure and countless variables. Emotions sometimes boil over.

Hockey, of course, is no different. And the conversations often aren’t as playful as the one Jackson described

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe was handed a misconduct last week after arguing a call. Buffalo Sabres counterpart Don Granato, meanwhile, wasn’t happy with the refs in another game and was assessed a bench minor.

Both were fined US$25,000 by the NHL for “unprofessional conduct directed at the officials,” joining Greg Cronin of the Anaheim Ducks as coaches a little lighter in the wallet this season.

“There is a fine line,” Keefe explained a few days later. “It’s a chance for me to reflect and grow.”

Jackson, who retired in 2018 and now works for ESPN, said the last thing a referee wants is to penalize or eject a coach.

“Not something that’s fun,” he said. “Whether you mean to or not, you’re now the focus.”

Greg Kimmerly, who reffed in the NHL from 1999 through 2016 and still works in hockey, said officials are aware of the stakes heading into a game, including where teams are in the standings or when a coach’s job might be in jeopardy.

“You need to understand where it comes from,” he said of anger or emotion from behind the bench. “It also needs to stay within the level of respect.”

And there are also times when the conversations simply end.

“You run into situations where a coach has lost the right to talk to you,” Kimmerly added. “They’ve crossed the line.”

Arizona Coyotes head coach Andre Tourigny uses common sense with officials.

“I treat those guys the way I would like to be treated,” he said. “If they yell at me every time I make a mistake, they will stand in front of my bench and yell at me all game.

“Mistakes will happen. That doesn’t mean because you’re in the best league in the world, and because it’s the fastest game in the world, you don’t get held accountable.”

Boston Bruins defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk said experienced coaches know when to push the right buttons with their teams – similar to Bowness in the minors – or the officials.

“It certainly can be unhealthy if it’s a regular thing,” he cautioned of screaming at refs. “Becomes more of a distraction.”

New York Rangers head coach Peter Laviolette added everyone handles their business differently.

“If you fall out of line, typically you get whacked,” he said.

An analyst on U.S. TV before taking his current job, Vancouver Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet explained his position following a recent loss.

“We can sit here all night and pick and choose (penalty decisions),” he told reporters. “If I was on TNT right now, I’d give you what I thought about the refs.

“But I’m not. I’m a head coach.”

Jackson, who made his NHL debut in 1990, said referees have varying levels of patience when a coach is hot under the collar – depending on the situation.

“If I was 100-per-cent certain, they had a shorter leash as opposed to when there was a potential I didn’t make my finest call,” he said. “I would let them vent a little “¦ maybe they had a point.

“The leash becomes a little shorter when they’re arguing something they’re wrong about.”


Boston won last season’s Presidents’ Trophy by a 22-point margin following a record-breaking regular season.

The 2023-24 race is a lot closer.

Florida leads the overall standings with 90 points, followed by Vancouver (87), Boston (87), Dallas (85), the New York Rangers (84) and Winnipeg (83).


New Jersey fired Lindy Ruff this week, making him the seventh coach let go this season.

General manager Tom Fitzgerald met the media to discuss the move that included associate coach Travis Green taking over on an interim basis.

“Accountability is a huge word for me,” Fitzgerald said. “Habits, details – things like that go into what makes good teams – I thought those were areas where we were lacking.”

-With files from Nick Wells in Vancouver.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 6, 2024.


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