PROFESSIONAL ice hockey is noted for lightning speed and high-intensity action. It is also a sport where competitiveness can get out of hand, leading to fights and injuries. The sport's referees and linesmen are indispensable to maintaining good conduct and the safety of the players.
Thus, it has been dismaying that the National Hockey League's 58 regular referees and linesmen have been on strike since Nov. 15, following the failure of the officials and the National Hockey League to reach a new contract. Substitutes from minor leagues have been filling in for the strikers.
The striking officials wanted a 60 percent pay raise in the first year of a two-year agreement. The 26-team NHL argued that was too much; it offered a 29 percent pay hike in the first year of a four-year pact. The two sides have narrowed their demands, with both sides reportedly less than $1 million a year apart, in terms of benefits. Meantime, complaints are mounting that substitute officials are having difficulty holding down a rising level of fights on the ice.
The turmoil comes at an unfortunate moment. The sport has made enormous gains in recent years. ``Canada's game'' increasingly rivals basketball, baseball, and football for the attention of fans. The NHL has added five expansion teams since 1991. New teams, such as Wayne Huizenga's Florida Panthers, (he of Blockbuster Video fame), and the Walt Disney Company's Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Calif., draw huge crowds. Many older NHL teams are building new stadiums or refurbishing existing facilities.
Hockey's traditions are melting almost as fast as expansion teams are awarded. California now has more NHL teams than Ontario, Canada. Wayne Gretzky, of the Los Angeles Kings, is close to topping veteran superstar Gordie Howe's all-time record for goals scored. Two-thirds of the NHL's players still come from Canada. But a third come from the United States and Europe, particularly eastern Europe. In Europe, tough physical combat is the norm in many games.
That's where the matter of the referees and linesmen comes in. The substitutes are doing what they can. But precisely because of its high-speed, take-no-prisoners style, hockey requires tougher officiating than just about any other professional sport. The NHL has taken steps in recent years to curb violence. That stand should be maintained. And the game's referees, linesmen, and management should ice a new contract as soon as possible.