Almanack: Referees say the puck stops here

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A SPORTING disaster to rival our own national catastrophe has struck across the Atlantic, where the National (ice) Hockey League's referees have downed whistles and gone on strike. The issue is money: first- year (ie novice) referees are at present paid dollars 50,000 a year, and first-year linesmen dollars 33,000, which doesn't sound like a bad whack; the aggrieved officials point out that it is earned by separating the squabbles of heavily armed men while travelling backwards on ice at high speed, add that they haven't had a pay hike for donkey's years, and suggest that a rise of some 60 per cent is in order.

Needless to say the National Hockey League, which runs the sport, sees things in a different light and is offering less than 30 per cent; they have also drafted in strike- breaking replacement refs, who in British industrial parlance would undoubtedly be described as Scabs On Skates. John Halligen of the NHL, a kind of speak-your-weight machine with a Brooklyn accent, explains the situation thus: 'The league had in place a plan to have replacement officials, up to 70 in number, work the games that the current officials have decided to boycott. That process began Monday night and continues.' Are the NHL prepared to stick this out for as long as it takes? 'That is correct.' And the replacement refs are doing a good job? 'Thus far that is correct.'

Don Meehan, the officials' chief negotiator, is similarly circumspect - indeed, an American hockey guru confided to Almanack that 'Meehan wouldn't say 'crap' if his mouth was full of it' - but he did point out that the average player's salary in the NHL is dollars 550,000, that officials in other sports are better paid than hockey officials, and that a hockey referee's career is unlikely to last more than 15 years, shortened by lengthy training at the outset and demanding fitness requirements later on.

'It's a very short lifespan,' he says, 'and as such we are looking for a substantial increase in salary.'

Ice hockey experts concur with Meehan's arguments: 'You have to be far more athletic than referees in other sports,' says David Shoalts, puck prophet at the Toronto Globe & Mail, 'and for the linesmen it's even worse - these guys have to break up fights. The first-year salary for an NHL linesman is dollars 33,000 - you can make more than that driving a cab.'

Shoalts believes that the referees will win the day in the end, because the standard of scab recruited by the the NHL will eventually let it down. In a show of solidarity that the NUM would envy, the two tiers of officials immediately below league standard refused to replace their seniors, leaving the NHL no choice but to recruit from junior league and college ranks. 'These are people', says David Shoalts, 'who apart from watching television have never really had to handle a game as quick as the NHL, and as hard-hitting - there's no fighting allowed in the US college game. As time goes on they're going to run into more and more problems, and that's when the striking refs will start to look pretty good to the National Hockey League.'

So victory and a decent wage to the brave men in black and white. No such luck for their British counterparts, however, who are paid a princely pounds 30 a night and have to buy their own skates. 'You take the fees of British referees in ice hockey,' admits Ken Taggart, a top British official, 'and compare them to referees in soccer, American football, basketball and everything else, we're way down the list on the bottom.' So why does he do it? 'Primarily for love and participation in the game,' Ken says. 'You don't do it to make money, let me tell you.' Not in Britain, anyway.

(Photograph omitted)