The National Hockey League reminded coaches and general managers the other day that they are subject to fines of up to $10,000 for public criticism of officials. It is an attempt to shield from public view the growing dissatisfaction with the work of referees and linesmen.
Officiating hockey is an impossible job to begin with, and the league has complicated matters for the brave souls who try by telling them to forget the rule book and consider instead the flow of the game.
NHL President John Ziegler is on record as saying that "if all the hooking and holding were called, the game would come to a standstill." Yet hooking and holding are clearly defined in the rule book and it is the feeling here that if those rules were strictly enforced, players would cease the violations and the game would become much more attractive.
Many rules fall in the largely ignored category. Among them are regulations dealing with a deliberate attempt to injure, faceoff interference, freezing of the puck by goaltenders, boarding, butt-ending and spearing. Butt-ending and spearing are automatic major penalties and referees are reluctant to call them, yet they are common in every hockey game.
Injuries are becoming so prevalent that the league has commissioned special studies to try to determine the cause. But if the board of governors would merely open its collective eyes and study videotapes, it would learn that a primary reason is failure to enforce the rules.
When Randy Pierce of Colorado crashed Washington's Darren Veitch against the boards Thursday night, injuring Veitch's left knee, no penalty was called. Yet Rule 45 calls for a minor or major penalty to "any player who bodychecks . . . an opponent in such a manner that causes the opponent to be thrown violently into the boards."
The rule is a good one, but in failing to enforce it, the league is condoning the common practice of lining up a player and taking a run at him. The boards are the usual location for such tactics, which certainly qualify as deliberate attempt to injure, because few players will attempt such a check in open ice for fear of missing the target and being caught far out of position.
Of course, the rule book has long been considerd a joke book by critics of the NHL. How about Rule 82: "If, at the end of three regular 20-minute periods the score shall be tied, the teams will play an additional period of not more than five minutes. . ."
The players overruled that overtime provision. Perhaps they vetoed all those other unenforced rules, too, and the NHL just hasn't gotten around to announcing it.
Bryan Watson, the old Capital defenseman, is the coach of the Edmonton Oilers and he is finding life behind the bench considerably different from his playing days.
"When you were a player, you could take your frustrations out on the opposition," Watson said. "Being a coach is a helpless thing. You can't release your tensions. You want things to happen and they're not happening, but with a young team you have to be patient. It's not easy."
Watson, a bit of a con man as a player, is finding another aspect of coaching -- motivation -- to be his forte.
"I never realized how much was involved in coaching," Watson said. "Particularly the psychological aspect. It's a tremendous head game from the time you say good morning to the players until you talk to them after the game at night. I love it."
Watson and his wife, Lindy, are finding Edmonton less of a cultural center than Washington, and it does not figure to get better as the winter snows pile up.
"I really miss Washington," said Watson, who lived there last year while scouting Oilers' opponents. "I'm finding it's quite a change out here -- not a shock, but close to it. Washington was the most sensational place I ever lived in, there were so many things for Lindy and me and the kids to do.
"Hockey here is such a major-league sport, though. The people here so strongly identify with hockey. In Washington, I had to be there three years before people had any idea who I was. Now all the people know who I am, and a lot of them stop me when I walk down the street to tell me what's wrong with the team."
The Oilers carried a 2-4-3 record into tonight's game with the Capitals and all seven points had been earned with ex-Capital Ron Low in the nets. Watson called Low "one of the team leaders; the guys really like him."
A Los Angeles newspaper referred to Washington Coach Gary Green as an "infant" and the 27-year-old Green, who is weary of such nonsense, commented, "When I grow up, I want to be a sportswriter."