|During Game 3 of the 1988 Wales Conference Finals, referee Don Koharski and Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld got into a verbal confrontation that led to the on-ice officials striking Game 4.
Hometown off-ice officials don't have much to do if they don't get an assignment during the Stanley Cup Playoffs to go to another city to be a goal judge or a penalty box attendant. So Paul McInnis was planning to relax and just watch the New Jersey Devils
play the Boston Bruins
in Game 4 of the 1988 Prince of Wales Conference Finals from the "halo" at the top of the Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, N.J.
It was Mother's Day, and the Devils’ off-ice official had no idea when he arrived at the arena that he would become a central character in one of the strangest settings ever for a Stanley Cup Playoff contest.
On the previous Friday night, Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld got into a verbal confrontation with referee Don Koharski, which happened to be caught on tape by a WABC-TV cameraman. The image was broadcast on local TV with Schoenfeld's unkind words blasting over the airwaves around the New York City area.
With that, McInnis' wild adventure started.
NHL Vice President Brian O'Neill suspended Schoenfeld and banned him from the bench area for Game 4. The Devils management asked for a hearing, but O'Neill refused. After O'Neill said no, Devils management claimed its rights as well. The club felt Schoenfeld's rights had been violated and took the matter to New Jersey Superior Court Judge James F. Madden.
On Sunday night, Justice Madden ordered the suspension overturned pending a formal League hearing. Madden ruled that the NHL's investigation consisted of two phone calls, one to Koharski and one to Schoenfeld, and criticized O'Neill for not reviewing the videotape.
Schoenfeld was free to coach.
When the referee and linesmen got wind of the court ruling, referee Dave Newell and linesmen Gord Broseker and Ray Scapinello refused to work the game. That caused a lengthy delay as League officials needed to find a referee and two linesmen. In the end, three Devils off-ice officials, McInnis, Jim Sullivan and Vin Godleski, said they would perform the roles of referee and linesmen. McInnis became the referee, while Sullivan and Godleski were the linesmen. McInnis had a striped shirt, and the two linesmen wore yellow scrimmage sweaters.
"What we usually do during the playoffs, the home team off-ice officials are supposed to be there to be hospitality people for the visiting officials who actually do the game,” McInnis said. “We have to have our people there to show them how to run the machinery, the clock and so forth and to sort of take care of them. The original inkling that we had was when (Director of Officiating) John McCauley came into our room. We normally get there about two hours before the game time and we have dinner and so forth.
"He mentioned that ‘You guys might have to do this game.’ We sort of laugh and said ‘Sure John, we'll do it.’ That was sort of it for a while, and he went out again and we continued with our dinner. Then game time was due and when the referees went out and saw coach Jim Schoenfeld behind the bench, they really did walk off, and at that point McCauley came in and said to us ‘OK, you're on.’ This was at game time itself. By the time people found some skates and equipment for us, that was the reason we were about 40 minutes late. We had to find some pads and skates and other equipment to use before we actually went out there."
It wasn't as if McInnis was a refereeing novice. He had been around hockey for years and ran the Murray Skating Rink in Yonkers, N.Y., but McInnis had never blown a whistle in an NHL rink in the third round of the playoffs.
"I think the last time that I had skated before that, I had done a non-check men's league at South Mountain Arena (then the Devils’ practice facility in West Orange, N.J.) and that was three days before that," he recalled. "Of course we knew most of the Devils players, but we also knew some of the guys on the Boston team from when I had done college games. They had three or four guys who had come out of the college leagues and I had known those guys from doing their games. So, I knew players from both teams, but once the game starts though all you do see really is two different colors and names and faces and players really don't make a difference."
McInnis said that he had a relatively easy time calling the game because of the circumstances.
"No, that night, the players and coaches were excellent," he said. "We had no trouble from them, and as a matter of fact, before the game I went over to both coaches and mentioned that I would need their help in keeping peace on the benches itself. I said we probably can take care of the ice, but if they would help us out on the benches, it would be a great help and they were excellent, both players and coaches were excellent, they were very good about it.
You know (the linesmen's garb), that was probably one of the big problems. When the players saw the guys in the yellow jerseys out there, they said this can't be for real, this wasn't serious, even though it was a real game and it really counted. The sweaters were a definite distraction. - Paul McInnis
"You know (the linesmen's garb), that was probably one of the big problems. When the players saw the guys in the yellow jerseys out there, they said this can't be for real, this wasn't serious, even though it was a real game and it really counted. The sweaters were a definite distraction."
Game 4 of the conference finals is quite a bit different from a non-check men's league game, but because McInnis had no idea he was going to be a referee that night, he didn't have to think about the assignment.
"It was surprising, but you didn't get much time to be nervous or worry about it," he said. "That was one good thing about it. But once we got out there, it was another hockey game except with an awful lot of people and an awful lot of television around. But that really all sinks into the background when you are out there and doing the game itself. It was just quite a night.”
McInnis did have one major problem that night which might have been avoided had Judge Madden issued a ruling earlier on Sunday. He had dinner, a big dinner at that, and officiating just minutes later don't seem to go hand in hand.
"That was the worst part," McInnis laughed. "Having a big meal and going out trying to skate a game like that. I think I tasted that meal all night."
Judge Madden's injunction was lifted and Schoenfeld served his suspension during Game 5 in Boston. The Bruins would win the series in seven games and played Edmonton the Final. Game 4 in New Jersey in the conference finals might have been chalked up to just one of those crazy things, but just 16 days later Boston was involved in another strange circumstance.
It was another Game 4, this time at the Boston Garden. It was a hot day at the old building that lacked air conditioning and that caused fog which interfered with the game. But that was the least of the problems. A transformer blew out, causing a power outage which ended the game at 16:37 of the second period with the scored tied, 3-3. Game 4 was played again from the start in Edmonton, the Oilers became the only NHL team to sweep a four game series in five games.
"It was a crazy year and a crazy playoff, especially for Boston," McInnis said. "You had to feel sorry for those poor guys. After they came to New Jersey and had no referees, then they go to Boston in the Edmonton series and lose their lights and lose a home game too because they game didn't count and they had to go to Edmonton. So you had to feel for those poor guys."