Brad Watson will have his work cut out for him. The veteran official has stepped on the NHL ice over a thousand times.  While his approach to the game may not have changed, each and every one of his calls will be more heavily scrutinized than ever.  So will those of referees Wes McCauley and Kevin Pollock as they work tonight’s Montreal Canadiens game. 

Watson is coming off a memorable game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens — memorable for all the wrong reasons.  The game saw the two teams combine for 66 minutes in penalties.  Montreal forward Brandon Prust piled up 31 of them.  After the game, he ripped into referee Brad Watson for a conversation the two had after Prust’s first penalty of the game. 

Referee Brad Watson

Prust was fined $5,000 for his post-game comments.  No discipline has been handed out – at least publicly – to Watson.   

He certainly has his defenders.  NHL VP of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell called Prust’s allegations “baseless and demeaning of a referee whose 20-year career in the league has been marked by professionalism, integrity and a high degree of respect from players, coaches and management.”

Sportnet spoke with some veteran players about Watson. “I’ve never seen Brad Watson do that to anyone,” said one. “[Watson] demands respect,” said another. “If he gets it, he’s in a good mood.”

Whatever Watson said, Prust’s comments were uncalled for.  There’s an avenue to express his displeasure, and it’s not with the media in a post-game scrum.  Unfortunately, now, those words have put Watson, Prust, the Canadiens, and the rest of the league’s officials in a tough spot.

Post-Prust Fallout

Both Watson and Prust – as well as the Montreal Canadiens and the officials working their games – will be watched closely.  Any non-calls will be debated as to whether they were was missed ‘accidentally on purpose’ depending on whether or not they favors the Habs. 

Long-time NHL referee Kerry Fraser shared his thoughts:

Officials make hundreds of judgments every game to determine the legitimacy of a potential infraction or violation of the rules. Not every penalty is clear cut or black and white. There are times when a player will receive the benefit of the doubt and not be penalized when it concerns a grey area call. Personal history with a player, or the player’s tendencies that he has demonstrated over the long haul can sometimes influence the final judgment that a referee will make on a play. Players who have established a reputation for diving/embellishment are judged differently each time they fall to the ice or reach for their face than a player that fights to remain on his feet.

Less tolerance is offered to a player or coach that is nasty, verbally insulting or has attempted to embarrass an official. Trust and respect are established between officials and participants of the game to form a good working relationship. When the bond of trust is fractured or broken it takes some effort to repair it. By “less tolerant” I don’t mean that the referee will invent a penalty to punish a player that he takes issue with. What I am saying, is if there is a benefit of the doubt to be extended it is less likely to be granted to a player or coach, that in the mind of the official doesn’t deserve it or earned it. 

That’s what players, teams, and fans will be watching for.  How will the officials respond to Brandon Prust and the Montreal Canadiens?  Will they be getting the benefit of the doubt?  Or, as Kerry Fraser put it, will they be ‘less tolerant’ of Prust and his club?

Watson – working Rangers vs. Capitals – and referees Kevin Pollock and Wes McCauley – working Canadiens vs. Lightning – will all be under the microscope tonight.  While we expect the calls to be fair, each and every whistle will likely be questioned.  For the teams – and especially for the officials – that’s unfortunate.