Boston's Don Marcotte hadn't touched the puck Saturday night before he was checked by Montreal winger Bob Gainey. Referee Andy Van Hellemond sent Gainey to the penalty box for interference.
"That certainly was a marginal call," one observer commented.
Informed that interference was interference, he replied, "You're right, but they haven't been calling them that way."
All Canada is in uproar about the inconsistent officiating in the World Hockey Championships in Vienna, but a problem also exists here at home, in the Stanley Cup series.
Van Hellemond whislted 13 penalties during Montreal's 7-3 victory Saturday night, seven in the third period. Obviously, he believes in calling the game according to the rule book.
The other three referees working the final series have somewhat different attitudes. Ron Wicks and Bruce Hood are of the old school, preferring to "let them play" and overlooking most violations as long as the game stays under control. In the third period the rule book is forgotten. Bob Myers is not so easy to categorize, but he is certainly more selective than Van Hellmond.
Tuesday night, in the fifth game of the Montreal-New York Islanders semifinal, New York's Billy Harris pulled down Gainey right in front of Myers.When the referee ignored the violation, fans brought play to a halt by heaving programs, bottles, a puck and even a silver bell onto the ice. Moments later, Guy Lafleur tripped an Islander. No call. Then New York's Garry Howatt pulled down Lafleur. Penalty.
Van Hellemond also called 18 penalties in the second game of the New York-Montreal series, five in the third period. Dave Newell, another who follows the book, whislted 12 in the third game, three in the final period. In none of the other four games did the penalty total reach double figures, and there was only one third-period penalty that did not involve coincidental minors.
In the Boston-Philadelphia semifinal, matching two physical teams, only one penalty was called in the third period of any game. Wally Harris did not penalize anyone in the last 52 minutes of that double overtime battle in game two, despite frequent opportunity.
The Canadiens did not have time for a practice after finishing off the Islanders Thursday, but they did hold a 30-minute meeting to discuss the Bruins - and the referee.
"We know there is up to a 10-minute variation in the average penalties given by different referees in a game," said Montreal coach Scotty Bowman. "Some officials call things that are marginal. I told the players to expect a tight game, not only because of who the referee was, but because of all the criticism the referees have been taking.
"We want to play the man - that's hockey. But we're not a holding, hooking, slashing team and we didn't want to get into a matching contest of those things.
"If the referees are letting things go, players learn to take advantage of it. Subconsciously, they realize they can get away with certain things. There's a danger that if you don't call anything the game will get out of hand."
Bowman prefers a tightly officiated game, because the Canadiens are an overpowering skating team and opponents try to slow them down with hooks, holds and interference that do not seem particularly menacing but are basically illegal.
"When we played Philly at their peak," Bowman said, "we could figure they'd commit about 20 violations and the referee would see maybe 12. We'd commit six and he's spot five. There's no way the referee can see everything, but the more you try to get away with it seems the more they overlook."
That was a prime criticism of the league during the Flyers' two glory years. Officials hesitated to call all their fouls and, therefore, they got away with considerable illegal maneuvering. Now, it appears that anybody can figure on escaping justice, so long as Van Hellemond is elsewhere and the fouls don't occur in open ice.
Hockey people explain the reluctance to call penalties late in the game by saying they prefer to have a close contest decided by the teams, rather than a power-play goal set up by a referee's decision. What they can't explain is why a player pulled down from behind with the sore tied should be deprived of his opportunity to decide that game.
Supervisors of officials watch the referees closely and hold periodic meetings at which they discuss points they want stressed. So a player who has held the puck against the boards should be deprived of his opportunity 40 times during the season without punishment may suddenly find himself in the box for that sin, if it happens to be the league's special of the week.
To avoid such inconsistency, Bowman suggests that the coaches or general managers meet with the referees or supervisor before a game to discuss areas of concern.
"In baseball, the umpires and manager meet before every game and go over the ground rules," Bowman said. "Why couldn't hockey do something like that?
"It wouldn't be a beef-airing time but more of an information exchange, which would help everyone, plus improving the caliber of the show we're staging for the fans. The game is degrading itself because of this lack of communications."