July 19, 2008

Between The Lines by Ray Scapinello

I thought about creating a list of the greatest NHL referees and linesmen of all time. Oh sure, I could have rattled off some Hall of Fame names like Bill Chadwick and Frank Udvari, or Bill McCreary or Ron Foyt, John D'Amico or Ron Asselstine.

But to actually try to identify the best on-ice officials would be an incredible slap in the face of the many greats who have blown NHL whistles.

Let's face it, officiating a NHL hockey game has to be the toughest job in all of refereedom. You never have a home game. Everyone, and I mean everyone from fans to coaches to most players, disagrees with you, usually loudly and using choice language. That isn't uncommon in other sports, but hockey is a far faster game than most, and historically rule interpretations have been quite subjective.

In addition to dealing with the intense scrutiny, NHL officials have to anticipate the play ahead of time to avoid violent collisions with monstrous players and to dodge frozen rubber bullets travelling 100 miles an hour at their heads and other body parts.

Oh yeah, and you have to break misunderstandings between professional and usually ill-tempered fighters.

No, to name just a few officials as the best of the best would be a disservice to the many who deserve mention. But there is one official who deserves special mention, and that would be linesman Ray Scapinello.

If I could choose from any official in history to run my dream game, Ray Scapinello would definitely be on the lines. He set untouchable NHL records: 33 seasons, 2500 consecutive games, 426 playoff games and 20 Stanley Cup finals. He was the NHL's choice to officiate in the 1998 Olympic games and was immediately inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. He never missed a single game.

Over all of those years "Scampy" saw a lot of hockey and a lot of hockey players. In 2006, with the help of writer Rob Simpson, Scapinello shared his memories in his book Between the Lines: Not-So-Tall Tales From Ray "Scampy" Scapinello's Four Decades in the NHL . This 2006 book was published by Wiley.

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The book opens with "The Essential Scampy," which pays tribute to his meticulous devotion to professionalism, his undeniable respect he's earned from all walks of life, and his passion and love for the game and for people.

The book moves into the greatest games he was ever a part of, notably the 1994 Stanley Cup finals and the 1998 Olympic games. But to remember the greatest games is not really what officials are all about. After all, they don't want to be remembered as part of any game. If they are, it is almost certainly for controversial reasons. Moreover, the very approach of an official myopic as they immerse themselves in the subtle intricacies of the game, not the grand moments.

Scapinello does talk about the most controversial, and therefore perhaps most memorable game that he was a part of. He was one of the officials in the 1988 playoffs that refused to work a game after New Jersey Devils' coach Jim Schoenfeld was allowed to stand behind the bench. Schoenfeld had previously been suspended for the game for his abusive antics against officials in the previous game. After a court injunction allowed him to coach the game, referee Dave Newell walked out, and Scapinello and Gord Broseker stood up for the officials too, as did back up referee Dennis Morel. The game would go on, using hastily-found amateur referees decked out in bright yellow jerseys. Scapinello's memories of Yellow Sunday are worth peeking at this book.

The book then goes into his life as a youth and his own failed hockey career. He was a player that officials normally hate to deal with - a pint-sized agitator with a big mouth. In his early 20s, while working an office job with General Electric, he got into refereeing as a way to stay in hockey and to earn some extra cash. It would not take long for him to move up the ranks.

He then moves on to talk about fights - the chapter every fan wants to read about. Scapinello was a tiny guy at 5'7" and 165lbs. How did he manage to break up the biggest and baddest men on ice? It turns out he did the job with a lot of good timing and even more respect from the heavyweights.

Scapinello calls Tie Domi as the toughest fighter, pound for pound. He also ranks Bob Probert right up there. he talks about some of more famous fights he had to break up, including some bench clearing brawls. He suggests that those 1970s brawls "probably looked a lot worse than they actually were." He was involved in two of the most famous: The night Mike Milbury scaled the glass and began to beat a spectator with a shoe, and the night the Flyers ganged up on Colorado Rockies defenseman Mike Christie. Scapinello also remembers Jack McIlhargey, Steve Durbano, and breaking up Domi/Probert II.

Interestingly, Scapinello admits to loving the fights and the combatants.

"I think most officials enjoy the fights. It's the only time an official can kind of be a fan."

Scapinello goes onto talk about the changes in hockey he had witnessed in his 33 years in the league. He passes on some secrets of his success and shares many laughs, particularly when recalling some practical jokes over the years.

I do have some issues with this book, however.

This may come across as nitpicking, but the use of margins in the book is not at all appealing. There is too much white space, at least on the hard cover edition I reviewed. There is a reason why most books follow the tried and true rules of typesetting, and that is to make the book optimally readable. I found the book hard to get into for this exact reason.

The book isn't a true autobiography. Simpson writes the book about Scapinello, rather than writing in first person for Scapinello. I'm not a big fan of this approach. Somehow a properly written book in first person gives the reader a lot more insight and attachment to the main character. I never really got that in Between The Lines.

But I think the biggest problem with the book is it wanders off from Scapinello far too often. Though this is supposed to be Scampy's story, the unselfish Scapinello shares his spotlight and pays homage to his co-workers a lot. While this may be his way of thanking his fellow officials, sharing memories of all these other referees and linesmen only takes away from Scapinello's story. There are some great stories from some of the greatest NHL officials, but they are not all Scapinello's, which only serves to seperate the reader from any growing attachment to the main character.

Ray Scapinello is the longest serving and the most respected NHL official of all time. He has enough stories to fill a volume of books. The other officials should have gotten their own book deal instead of interrupting Scapinello's story.


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