When Pressure Is Privilege

How National Hockey League officials deal with deafening crowds, tough players, and big moments. A Q&A with veteran NHL linesman Scott Driscoll.
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(Photo: Paolo Bona/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Paolo Bona/Shutterstock)

Scott Driscoll worked his first NHL game in 1992 in the Boston Garden. It ended in a 3–3 tie between the Bruins and the New York Islanders. Pierre Turgeon, who retired in 2007, led both teams in scoring. Next month, Driscoll will work his 1,500th NHL game. Pacific Standard spoke with him from his hotel room in Florida, where he was preparing for Saturday’s game between the Panthers and the Dallas Stars. Originally from Seaforth, a small Ontario town near the eastern shore of Lake Huron, Driscoll discussed how the game has changed over the course of his career, the art of trash talk, surviving in pressure cooker moments, and why now is an opportune time to be a young official.

What’s your routine like on game day?

The two Hollywood movies that you can best combine together to show what the life of an NHL official is like are Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Groundhog Day because we do the same thing over and over again, and we travel.

We travel the day of the game to our next destination, go to the hotel, check in by noon. Then you unpack the stuff that you'd just packed up a few hours earlier, some of us might take a nap in the afternoon, and when it’s game time you pack your ref bag, change into a suit, and get to the rink an hour and a half before the game starts. We're very regimented in what we do, to the point where we know exactly what we're going to be doing every day.

Today was an off day. If we have an off day we travel a little bit later; we won't travel first thing in the morning. We typically work out and keep our cardiovascular endurance in check. The game’s a fast-moving game.

Faster than when you started?

Yes. The two biggest changes, and maybe they’re related, are, number one, definitely the speed of the game. The guys now—it's not that they weren't in great shape before—but they train year round. They’re machines. They come out of junior hockey, like Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, and they're just so fast, they’re so explosive in their skating.

What we’ve lost over time, especially with the 2004–05 season lockout, when we came back they really tackled obstruction. The players are freer to skate; the game is faster. As a result the guys that would have been marginal fourth-line players, that would have been called the tough guys, they sort of lost their role. The teams can’t afford to have a person on the ice that doesn't have the complete package. They’re still guys out there that are tough, but they can play too.

Does having fewer tough guys around change the intensity of the game?

The intensity has always been the same. The players that are out there, it's a job for them. They have to perform or they're going to lose their job.

What’s your playing background?

I played at Wilfrid Laurier University [in Waterloo, Ontario], on the last team to win the national championship. That was the 1989–90 season. After my first year at Laurier I had a tryout with the Vancouver Canucks. I didn’t make it, and when I got back, at my second year at Laurier, I started working lines in the Ontario Hockey League. That’s when I thought this was something that could possibly happen.

Had you officiated before that?

I started officiating when I was 12. I had eight years of officiating men’s hockey, junior hockey. I was officiating men’s hockey on Friday and Saturday nights, dealing with men who think they’re still in the glory days. When I made the transition, it was a gradual progression, going from playing to being an official.

So you were moving up the ranks just as the NHL was expanding?

When I tried out in Vancouver, there were 21 teams in the NHL. By the time I was hired, two years later, they were up to 24. Within a couple years of that, 26. Then a couple years after that, 30. In that small timeframe there was a lot of expansion, a lot of jobs for players, coaches, officials. It was great time to be young official, in the early ’90s.

That same crew, I'm in my 24th year, we’re now approaching the age where it's time for us to retire. There’s going to be mass exodus. It’s a sad reality that our time is coming to the end in the next few years. It's part of the metamorphosis for the league, for the officiating.

And a good opportunity for young officials.

In our collective bargain agreement with the NHL, there is a provision where only four of us can retire each season, so for the foreseeable future, there's going to be four guys leaving every year. Traditionally there has only been one or two spots; now they're looking at four guys every year for the next five years. It's a tremendous opportunity for young officials that are out there.

Did you find your intensity on the ice was different, as an official rather than a player?

I found that I was much more intense as an official than as a player. As a player I was a stay-at-home defenseman, nothing too flashy. I was a big guy, but I wasn’t really an intense player. I try not to be too intense as an official, but when you get in situation where you're being yelled at, I have a tendency to not like that. I'd say I'm actually much more intense as an official than as a player.

How do you handle trash talkers?

If a player's going to try and get in my head, there's a good chance I'm going to say something back or assess him a penalty. I don't really need to deal with that. Some of the players are very quick-witted and they come up with the darndest things. Sean Avery, Ray Ferraro, they always had one-liners and zingers. You think someone is going to kill them out there but it's actually humorous what comes out of their mouths. Most of them keep it above the lines.

So trash talking hasn’t changed over the years?

No. That’s been going on since the advent of the hockey puck, I think.

What are the pressure cooker moments like—when you’re being yelled at, when the stress level might be high?

I don’t think it's that stressful; we have a job to do. You have to put things in perspective. I look at doctor, they have a stressful job, they're dealing with life or death—we’re not. We’re dealing with entertainment.

It’s a game played by humans, coached by humans, officiated by humans—there is going to be human error. You try and minimize mistakes, limit them and the effect of them, and you just deal with it. You learn as an official that you don't want to get too high after a good game or too low after a bad game. There's always tomorrow to improve, you keep that in perspective.

Do the officials lean on each other over the course of the season?

We're a tight-knit group, a small group. We rely on each other to get through the tough times. We're a good team. For anyone that plays or has played hockey, you miss the guys, being on the road, being part of the team. We still have that team.

People think it’s high stress. You get to the Stanley Cup Finals and the stress is increased, but you still have to realize it’s a game, it's not a life-or-death situation, it's sport. We make far fewer mistakes than players make on the ice, or coaches make in their execution, but errors are part of the game. With television media, and super slow motion and high definition, they tend to focus on the negative, the perceived missed calls. We only get to see it once, in real time, sometimes with an obstructed view. There’s no way we can be perfect.

Do the fans ever register? Can they have an impact on the game?

I think to get to our level, we’re able to zone things out and focus on the job. The big games create adrenaline, create energy, but at the same time it also enhances our focus. Those moments are special.

I did my first conference finals in Tampa in 2004. It went seven games. That's sort of our holy grail. The building in Tampa was just electric. It was 2–1 late in the game, and I thought the roof was coming off. That was more than 10 years ago but I can still remember the electric atmosphere, how loud it was, but at the same time you're so zoned in and watching the puck, you're just dialed in, you're just there. The feeling is kind of indescribable. You feel confident.

What’s the hardest part of the job?

Well one of the hardest things is being away from our families. Today, right now, my son is playing in a hockey tournament, my daughter is playing in a basketball tournament, and I'm waiting on updates to hear how both of them are doing.

I talked to David Legwand [center with the Buffalo Sabres] yesterday; he mentioned his two kids, five and three, and at some point, it's just like, have you missed enough of their stuff? I've missed more hockey games, basketball games, baseball games, lacrosse games than I care to count, but at the same time it’s my job and I provide for my family. There’s a balance there. It's a lot of sacrifice for everyone. I realize it's going to come to an end someday, and then I’ll be around all the time. They might get sick of that too.

The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.

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