This column was going to be about the special magic that you can create and enjoy when following your local hockey team through the playoffs.
You know, the community camaraderie you build when you come together to support a common cause? The sunshine and lollipops and unicorns that emanate from your person while pursuing such pure goals?
Let me stop you right there.
I’ve covered amateur hockey for more than 20 years, live-blogged the AHL’s Manitoba Moose for one year and did a live blog during every home game of the Winnipeg Jets during their inaugural season from the centre of the press box in Winnipeg. I also played as a teen at a fairly high level. I could safely say I’d seen it all. That was before Tuesday night’s KIJHL playoff game in Fruitvale between the Beaver Valley Nitehawks and the Castlegar Rebels. These are two evenly matched teams who battle hard but respect each other during play and off of the ice.
READ MORE: Castlegar Rebels tied 2-2 in series against Nitehawks after second loss
I knew something was amiss when I saw 2:00 pop up on the penalty slot on the clock before the game even started.
My internal dialogue was something akin to:
“Huh, I’ve never seen that before, that must be an error.”
“Nope, a Rebels player is headed to the penalty box. He must have said something nasty to the ref or something.”
“Nope it turns out it was a, and I quote, ‘warm-up violation.'”
This sounds like something you would do to get thrown out of a yoga class.
I asked what that actually meant, and was told that all players have to be off of the ice after the pre-game skate before the buzzer goes. That’s where things started to get weird.
You see what actually happened is the Rebels players were leaving the ice just before the buzzer sounded, and a Nitehawks player took the opportunity to pull out one of the oldest psych-out moves in the playoff book and fire a puck into the Rebels net at the end of the warm-up. To be very clear, the Nitehawks player had to be the last one on the ice to get away with this cheap move, yet the Rebels were the team penalized.
It was an omen of things to come.
Rebels head coach and general manager Bill Rotheisler did not hold back after the game.
“All guys have to be off of the ice by the buzzer and if they’re not they get a penalty. Beaver Valley should have had the penalty and they gave the penalty to us to start the game, which was a theme we saw throughout the whole night,” Rotheisler said in a silent hallway near the dressing rooms after the game.
“I don’t know what to do in that scenario. When an objective situation happens, like a time count penalty, and you try to argue with somebody that it didn’t happen that way, what do you do?”
Oh, it gets much worse.
“It’s the worst officiating I’ve seen since I started coaching. It was blatantly biased stuff,” Rotheisler said. “I’m sure he’s a good person off of the ice and no offence to him personally, but I’ve been doing this for 13 years full time and that’s the most biased game that I’ve ever been a part of.”
A source told me after the game that the team president for the Nitehawks was in agreement with this negative review in principle and was going to make a strong comment in the referee review on the game report. Rotheisler stressed that he had no problem with the way the Nitehawks played — both teams worked to play to the “playoff edge.”
This is not a new problem in these playoffs. Ask either side if they thought the reffing was balanced or consistent through the first four games, and I’d wager you’d get the same answer.
The league needs to switch to a two-ref and two-linesmen system as soon as possible. The pace of the game, the emotions and the intensity of the action ramps up 10-fold in the playoffs, and there’s no way one ref can catch all of the things that go on behind the play.
Not only is it unfair to the players, someone is going to get hurt.