In a few days, NHL referee Don Koharski will raise his arm in signal for a phantom infraction for the final time in regular season play. The league of course will fete Koharski with all manner of praise and congratulations for his career, as will, perhaps, the NHLPA. Perhaps. But count me among the thousands of hockey fans who, while acknowledging Koharski’s commitment to his profession, and the very real injuries he incurred and sacrifices he made in its execution, won’t miss him one iota on opening night next season.
Koharski started in the NHL as a linesman in 1977, and by 1980 he’d earned the duties of a referee. He’s made few admirers since.
I don’t doubt that Koharski gave it his very best effort on virtually every night he worked an NHL arena. My principal problem with Koharski is that his name is too recognizable for his profession — that he is better known than many of the league’s players is, ipso facto, evidence that all too often he was too much a central player in the NHL’s nightly drama.
I’m ready for a fresh young face to take his place — and especially if he’s a young official interested very much in pursuing a career low in its on-ice profile. If Koharski’s replacement is someone who aims to keep the relative peace in a knotted up third period and allow those whom 18,000 paid to see decide the outcome, I’ll yearn for Koharski’s earlier retirement.
If you were a reader of OFB late last April you may recall our position the moment the identities of the referees were announced for Game 7 here against the Flyers. It could be summed up with this single word: dread. I won’t suggest that Koharski cost the Caps’ that game, but perhaps you recall it ending in controversial fashion. Kerry Frasier has his faults to be sure, but when was the last game 7 he worked ending as last April’s here did?
After that game 7 fiasco, was it any surprise that Koharski wasn’t selected to be a referee for the Stanley Cup finals? Four of his less experienced peers were — Paul Devorski, Brad Watson, Dan O’Halloran, and Marc Joannette. For a referee of Koharski’s tenure, what a savage indictment. And how savagely appropriate.
You might enjoy knowing this as well about his career: Koharski was selected to work game 3 of the 1987 Canada Cup finals . . . due in no small part to his being requested to officiate it by the Russian team. If any ref was gonna give the benefit of the infraction doubt Russia’s way, it would seem, it was Don Koharski.
I doubt Jim Schoenfeld was surprised.
Speaking of Schoeny . . .
After a 6-1 loss to the Boston Bruins in the Wales Conference Finals in 1988, New Jersey Devils Coach Jim Schoenfeld had a few things to say to Koharski. Schoenfeld blocked Koharski’s exit from the ice to “inform” him of how he had basically given the game to Bruins. Koharski wanted nothing of it and began to walk to the official’s dressing room and took a tumble, much like a toddler does.
Presumably unhappy with the situation and looking for someone to blame it on, Koharski pointed an accusatory finger at Schoeny. Stan Fischler had perhaps the best recounting of the situation in his book, Pain and Progress: “Oh, you’re gone now! You’re gone. You won’t coach another…” shouted Koharski.
Schoeny shot back, “You fell and you know it. You know you fell. I didn’t touch you.”
Koharski: “You’re gone. You’re gone. And I hope it’s on tape.”
Schoenfeld: “Good, ’cause you fell you fat pig. Have another doughnut.”
The rest of the story isn’t really important. The league, predictably, sided with Koharski, and Schoeny was suspended until a court suspended the ruling. It was just one of the many sideshows in Koharski’s “high profile” career.
Don Koharski is one of the most well known names in the NHL, even more than some players. It’s sad because as referee he is not supposed to be the focal point of the game, he is supposed to make sure the game stays fair and clean. He joins the ranks of the Eddy Hightower and Ed Houchuli’s of sports. They are the refs that think they are actually the star players.
It’s a shame that Koharski will exit the NHL with potentially the fanfare of a retiring legend of a player. Well, not that much fanfare from the fans.
Fans, players, coaches and journalists alike, all too often over the past 30 years, were unable to see the logic or justification in too many of Koharski’s calls. Personally if he was to never set foot on a regulation sized hockey rink again I would die happy. This is one thing that perhaps even the bitterest of rivals can come together on in agreement.
There are so many other league officials deserving of recognition — for their remaining anonymous relative to the action on the ice. For instance Stephen Walkom has officiated more than 600 regular season games, 84 Stanley Cup playoff games and two Stanley Cup Fianls. I bet you have never heard of Walkom’s accomplishments — and that’s as it should be.