High school hockey referee Joel Lombard watched the action closely during a recent game at Braemar Arena in Edina.
When veteran referee Jerry McLaughlin skated onto the ice Tuesday night at Thaler Sports Center in Mound, he knew the game would be unlike any he had ever experienced.
McLaughlin and his two officiating partners met before the game with Hutchinson and Mound-Westonka team captains for longer than usual, reminding them they would draw five-minute major penalties for checking from behind, boarding and head contact.
During the game, McLaughlin analyzed open-ice hits more thoroughly, in fractions of a second. He called one penalty for checking from behind, although not exactly the type of headfirst crash into the boards that hurt Jack Jablonski. Hutchinson scored two goals to tie the score, drawing gripes from a Mound-Westonka assistant coach that continued to the postgame handshake between the teams.
Elsewhere, there was uncertainty. Between periods Tuesday night, a referee phoned Jim Kirshbaum, assignment secretary for the Suburban Referees Association, for clarification on a boarding call.
Kirshbaum said several referees have questioned their responsibility to enforce the Minnesota State High School League's tougher stance on violent hits. He said one referee called "four or five" major penalties Tuesday because he "felt like he had to call everything close."
Enforcing tougher penalties in the wake of Jablonski's life-changing injuries has put the spotlight on the state's nearly 700 referees. Frequently criticized by high school coaches, players and fans for how they call games, they're now learning to wield new power that has dramatic implications on the outcomes.
It comes as many hockey players are already taking a more measured approach to contact near the boards since Jablonski, a Benilde-St. Margaret's sophomore, was checked from behind into the boards on Dec. 30 and suffered a severed spinal cord.
McLaughlin, a 16-year veteran of officiating, is accustomed to making unpopular calls. He said he will keep doing so even as more severe penalties potentially impact games.
"I feel if we don't call the game the way it was intended, we're not doing anyone a service,'' said McLaughlin, who earned $105 for his work Tuesday night.
'Baby steps' ahead
Tuesday was the first night many of the state's teams played under the tougher penalties. Players called for a check from behind, boarding or head contact will get at least a five-minute major penalty. The calls, which are designed to make the game safer, can change the score and ultimately the game's outcome because the penalized team must play shorthanded for the duration of the penalty.
McLaughlin told the Hutchinson and Mound-Westonka captains: "I'm sure you worked on your penalty kill and power play. Your coaches would be making a mistake not to."
Major penalties brought special teams to the forefront in other games. No. 7 Eden Prairie led No. 9 Hill-Murray 4-1 until a checking-from-behind penalty against Eden Prairie eventually resulted in two Pioneers goals.
Eden Prairie coach Lee Smith spent time in Monday's practice giving players advice on playing hard yet smart.
"I told them, 'We're not going to play soft because hockey is still a physical game, but stay away from the big hit that gets the crowd standing up. We don't need that,'" Smith said.
Hill-Murray coach Bill Lechner said the change will require "baby steps" and a broader patience.
"We'll keep educating and talking about it," Lechner said. "Sensitive kids might back off and get burned from it. As coaches we have to bite our lip and allow mistakes."
Said Kirshbaum: "Some referees think because the high school league is cracking down they need to call more major penalties. We've stressed it to our membership that this doesn't change what's called, and that's how it should be approached."
Joint effort needed
The MSHSL said its goal to change the culture of hockey is a joint effort involving players, coaches, officials and fans. But officials butt heads on calls with coaches most of all. Veteran referee Joel Lombard said he's seen a welcomed change.
Lombard, who worked the Maple Grove-Edina game last week at Braemar Arena, got called over by Edina coach Curt Giles for an explanation on a crosschecking penalty that sent a Maple Grove player awkwardly into the boards.
Lombard did most of the talking, explaining to Giles, "The kid got put into a vulnerable position, he got hurt a little bit and when it's all said and done that's why I called this penalty."
"Curt totally understood it when I explained it to him that way," Lombard said.
Said McLaughlin: "As officials, we've always been the other guys. I'm hoping that moving forward here the coaches and refs are a team."