When you watch hockey long enough — or any sport for that matter — what you realize is that sometimes it’s not fair. There is always a missed call, a missed opportunity, something that could have gone your way but ended up falling in the other team’s favor. There are bad calls and bad bounces, and while you may feel it more when they strike your team, in reality it’s no different than what happens to any other team in the league.
There’s a lot of talk this postseason about how the refereeing is especially bad. According to every hockey fan, referees are missing calls and changing the momentum or outcome of the game. This is absolutely true ... but it’s also not. Because hockey has evolved and so has technology.
This game is much, much faster than it was five years or even two years ago. In the playoffs, there are 18 young men who are all in their prime on each side of the ice. They’re zipping at full speed from one end to the other. Their hands are quick and their moves are precise.
Wearing those striped shirts are men who are usually not in their prime. According to the site Scouting the Refs, the referees in St. Louis for Game 3 of the Western Conference Final were Dan O’Rourke (age 46) and Marc Joanette (age 49), while the linesmen were Matt MacPherson (age 35) and Jonny Murray (age 44). In other words, all but one is older than the men they’re overseeing. Those referees were asked to skate for 60-plus minutes of hockey, break up fights, and keep up with the play with little rest inbetween. They did a quality job, but it’s a monumental task to ask them to catch every little infraction considering the speed of play and the amount of work they needed to do.
And watching them now is every hardcore fan with a DVR remote in their hand. There’s YouTube and Twitter breaking things down millisecond by millisecond. There are more cameras in the rink and more angles to see. There’s instant replay and side-by-side comparison.
I would argue that the refereeing isn’t any worse now than it was ten years ago, we just happen to have much better technology and now the officiating errors are coming to light.
But the game of hockey is still the same and in the playoffs, that’s especially true.
When I was younger, a hockey neophyte if you will, I used to watch the Sharks’ playoff games and wonder why the team could not pull off those come from behind wins. I wondered why players didn’t dig a little deeper or take advantage of the 5-on-3 gifted to them by the referees.
In the playoffs, this was especially agonizing. There was a running joke around the league that the Sharks were bound to choke eventually. At times, it was hard to dispute that. Time and time again I watched my team not rise to the challenge and fold under adversity.
And that word, adversity, is really what I learned from those early years. You can say the word aloud and you can apply it to a hockey game, but to truly understand it you have to watch your team battle back from adversity and win.
There are two things a team needs to do to win a Stanley Cup: players need to take care of what they can control and respond to what they can’t. There is a mental toughness that comes from playoff hockey that some teams understand and some teams need to develop. You cannot control a bad bounce or a bad call, but you can control what your team does following that sequence of events.
Looking back at that Round 1, Game 7 against the Vegas Golden Knights is possibly the best example of that response. The Sharks could not control what happened to Joe Pavelski on the ice and they could not control the call that followed, but they could control what what they did with the result. The same could be said for the Golden Knights. The Sharks of ten years ago would not have responded with four goals in a five-minute span. They would not have forced overtime. But they learned. They knew that what happened to Pavelski had to be set aside so they could win the game. Vegas could not respond to the situation they were given and they allowed those four goals, not the referees.
There’s a reason why people refer to the Hockey Gods. Because sometimes it seems like even if your team is better, stronger, faster and more talented, you lose. And that’s why the ability to battle back from adversity is so important.
Win or lose, this Sharks playoff run will be marred with controversy. People will say San Jose received all the breaks. Bitter rivals will claim the fix is in. Fans will go back to the calls that happened to fall the Sharks’ way and say it was all luck, but the truth of the matter is that for the past 15 years, the stars have not aligned for the Sharks. They had the talent, but could not overcome a bad call or bounce. Or they had the bounces, but not the talent to win.
If the Sharks win, it’s because everything will have aligned this season. It has happened to practically every team that has won the Cup before and I know it will happen again in the future.
It takes more than talent to win Lord Stanley’s Cup. It takes the ability to bounce back from adversity. Teams need to take advantage of the breaks as they come and get those bounces when they count. The stars need to align and for now, I can cross my fingers and hope that this year, finally, they’ve aligned for the Sharks.