Should NHL referees be able to curse at coaches, players?

The debate was re-opened last week when NHL referee Frederick L'Ecuyer was caught swearing at a player with an open microphone on during a Nashville Predators-Columbus Blue Jackets game on Jan. 26.

'All NHL officials should know better,' says longtime referee Kerry Fraser

Boston Bruins' Zdeno Chara, left, disputes a call with Kerry Fraser during a game in 2007. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

In almost all sports, players and coaches curse at referees.

But should referees be allowed to curse back? 

The debate was re-opened last week when NHL referee Frederick L'Ecuyer was caught swearing at a yet-to-be identified player with an open microphone on during a Nashville Predators-Columbus Blue Jackets game on Jan. 26. 

WARNING: This clip contains explicit language 

By definition, a referee in all sports is considered professional and unbiased. Even though referees are human, L'Ecuyer's choice of words prompted the debate — how impartial can a referee be while verbally insulting players and coaches?

Kerry Fraser, who refereed 2,165 NHL games over his 30-year career, explained that although officiating has changed drastically over past decades, one aspect remains the same.

"The one thing that I tried to achieve in my career was respect," Fraser told CBC Sports. "It's not a case about being liked. Everyone likes to be liked. But for an official, to be respected, there is nothing better." 

When asked his thoughts on the Jan. 26 incident, Fraser didn't mince his words. 

"Freddie L'Ecuyer should know better," Fraser said. "All NHL officials should know better. You can't win in that situation. How can a [player] respect somebody that tells you to go eff off? [I] learned very early to treat disrespect with respect.

"[L'Ecuyer's] emotions were so out of control," Fraser continued. "Instead of facing the camera that he started out doing, [he] turned and cursed a player twice that was a long ways away. It makes no sense. That lack of control just can't happen."

1st wake-up call 

When Fraser entered the league in 1980, he quickly learned that he wouldn't last as an NHL official if he had his own adjustments to make. 

"The thing I learned about myself was that I'm a Type A personality. Very aggressive," Fraser recalled. "[This] was not going to serve me well in my new position [as a referee.]" 

Fraser quickly learned that he was going to need to change is method of dealing with players and coaches. 

"This isn't going to work...That's not what I'm paid to do. I'm not going to succeed if I continue that,— Kerry Fraser on changing his approach with coaches and players.

Fraser's new approach to officiating games allowed him to establish many good working relationships with players and coaches around in the NHL — but perhaps none more memorable than with former St. Louis Blues forward Tyson Nash. 

On Dec. 20, 2000, Nash — a second-year player at the time — was involved in a scrum at New York's Madison Square Garden with then-Rangers winger Theoren Fleury, who had just been released from the league-imposed substance abuse program.

Following the first period, Fleury — with tears in his eyes — confronted Fraser about a personal attack from Nash. After hearing what the Blues forward had said, the veteran referee decided to pull the two aside at centre ice so Nash could apologize before the start of the second period.

"Everyone knew what Theo was going through," Nash recalled to CBC Sports. "Kerry did not like what I had to say. He felt like it was in the heat of the moment. He called me out on it [and] made sure I did the right thing … We still talk about it to this day. Respect him greatly for it." 

Drawing a penalty? 'I literally would have to be shot'

As a former enforcer, Nash has had more than a few run-ins with officials. Regarding L'Ecuyer's comments, Nash admitted he wasn't surprised to hear the confrontational language from a referee. 

"It increases the tension," he said. "I mean, it's shocking in some way. You're like, 'holy cow! Are you kidding me? He can't talk to me like that' … But referees take a lot of abuse from players. They are no different than anybody else."

Former St. Louis Blues forward Tyson Nash was no stranger to the penalty box during his seven-year NHL career. (Elsa/Getty Images)

The Edmonton native played the role of an agitator and accumulated 673 penalty minutes in 374 NHL games.

"I had a real difficult job," Nash said. "My job was to draw penalties and agitate the other team. There were some refs that certainly had it out for me. I literally would have to be shot for them to put an opposing team's player in the penalty box." 

Teaching the next generation

Jeff Kyrzakos, who played for seven years in the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) and the Central Hockey League (CHL), said that in his experience, having a referee swear at you is just part of the game.

"No. Not at all," Kyrzakos told CBC Sports when asked if he was surprised by the explicit language from an official. "If you ask the player that [L'Ecuyer] was talking to, I bet he'd tell you, 'I was giving it to him and he gave it right back.'"

The 31-year-old, now an assistant coach with the Mississauga Steelheads of the Ontario Hockey League, instructs the club's young players to focus on building positive relationships with the men wearing the stripes.

"You can't treat them like they are scum," the Mississauga, Ont., native said. "You have to treat them like human beings. If you start having conversations man-to-man with linesmen and officials, you start to gain their respect."

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