Referee O’Rourke rocking from the criticism

Generally speaking, referees are like good stay-at-home defencemen. When they’re doing their job effectively, few people take notice.

Generally speaking, referees are like good stay-at-home defencemen. When they’re doing their job effectively, few people take notice.

When they’re not, well, welcome to the life of NHL referee Dan O’Rourke.

O’Rourke has suddenly become public enemy number one for Ottawa Senators fans. His ears must be burning from the vitriol he’s receiving after officiating three of the Senators past four games – all losses – where a series of questionable calls have gone against Ottawa.

Accordingly, O’Rourke has become the devil for Senators fans. The more reasonable of the critics believe he has a personal axe to grind against Senators coach Paul MacLean. On the far end are the conspiracy theorists, who suggest it’s all part of a league plot to keep the Senators out of the playoffs. Back off on that one. There’s no grassy knoll in sight.

Still, O’Rourke is hardly above criticism. The latest episode came in the Senators’ 4-3 loss to the Boston Bruins on Tuesday, a high-paced, evenly played game which was ultimately decided when the Bruins’ Dennis Seidenberg beat Senators goaltender Craig Anderson with a slapshot from centre ice. The Senators received four penalties and the Bruins none and Boston scored on two of its power play chances. The game ended with MacLean on the top of the players’ bench, screaming obscenities at O’Rourke and fellow referee Bob Martell.

The history between MacLean and O’Rourke goes back to Jan. 21, when the Senators lost 2-1 to the Anaheim Ducks. Immediately after that game, MacLean went public, saying that O’Rourke told him that defenceman Erik Karlsson was “a diver”, which is the reason he didn’t call a penalty when Karlsson was knocked to the ice by Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf in the final minute of the game. Since then, the Senators have been on the wrong end of the referee’s whistle.

In a 4-0 loss to Los Angeles on Jan. 23, where O’Rourke and Tim Peel were the referees, a penalty shot was awarded even though replays showed that a penalty wasn’t warranted. Against Phoenix on Jan. 24, with Peel and Dan O’Halloran serving as referees, an apparent third period tying goal by Daniel Alfredsson was wiped out by a questionable goaltending interference call. Then came Tuesday’s game against Boston.

Terry Gregson, the NHL’s director of officiating, defended his official on Wednesday. “You do not work the Stanley Cup finals in this league, as Dan did last year, without being a top notch official working from an impartial perspective,” Gregson told the Citizen in an email. “An official must enter each game with the mindset of being prepared, but not prejudging what will occur.”

Gregson also said that an NHL “officiating manager” spoke with both MacLean and O’Rourke following the Anaheim game.

Following a spirited practice Wednesday, MacLean had cooled down considerably from his post-game outburst. He says the Senators have to skate past the officiating, whether they like it or not.

“If we’re self-imploding because of officials, then we’re not doing a very good job of being focussed and just playing the game,” he said. “I can’t play for my players and referee for the referee. I just have to do my job. I think it’s incumbent upon us right now that if (unfair officiating) is the sense out there from (the media and fans), then that’s something we have to address as a team and make sure that’s not the case. We’re going to let the officials be the officials and that’s it. I believe we have to play harder.”

The NHL could, of course, avoid the perception of referees carrying a grudge by not scheduling them to work back to back games so often. There are 40 referees. So far this season, the Senators have received the same referee in back-to-back games seven times. O’Rourke’s appearance Tuesday marked the first time this season a referee has officiated three games in a four-game span. Gregson says it’s impossible to avoid back to back scenarios due to the busy schedule and difficulties of commercial travel.

The January schedule was designed in mid-December and the league typically only changes its officials when there’s an injury. The goal is for all referees to see each team at least five times. “It is uncommon that one ref does three of four games with one team, but it does occur,” he said. “In this case here, running over the All-Star break, it happened.”

Spezza acknowledges that it’s difficult for a player to stay quiet when he believes a bad call has been made, he also suggests you have to earn your respect. “With a young team, it’s probably easier, because you tell guys to just ‘shut your yap’,” he said. “We’re not going to say anything. We’re just going to play and prove we’re an honest hard working team and we feel if we do that, we’ll get the the respect. You have to bite your tongues. We’ve bit our tongue a few times and we have to do it again.”

Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson says you have to learn to accept the good with the bad. “Our penalties (against Boston), if you look at them, they’re penalties,” he said. “They could have called some of theirs, maybe, but there’s no use for us to feel sorry for ourselves, thinking everyone is against us. Throughout the season, there are calls for you and calls against you.”

Just the same, Senators fans can take solace in the fact O’Rourke doesn’t have too many more Senators games left to officiate this season.

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