by Justice William W. Bedsworth
Well, it’s official. The retirement papers are filed, I’ve said goodbye to my colleagues, and turned in my ID card. I may come back on assignment sometime, but basically I’m retired.
I know I’m going to miss it. I enjoyed it tremendously. I liked making the rulings, liked the attention, even liked the controversy.
I felt bad, of course, about my mistakes. But there were only five of them in fifteen years, which I felt was a pretty respectable number, considering all the calls I had to make.
Oh, I know there are some who insist I blew more than five calls. I got used to guys banging their sticks against the glass and glaring at me. And I frankly kind of enjoyed it when Grant Fuhr, a Hall of Famer, threw a water bottle at me. But instant replay only proved me wrong five times, so that’s the number I’m claiming.
And one of them, the puck that went through the net, really wasn’t my fault. An accident reconstruction specialist later explained to me that the time it takes a hundred-mile-an-hour slap shot to go through the thickness of a hockey net is faster than the human eye can react, so there really wasn’t much I could do about that one. Had it not been for ESPN’s super-slo-mo camera, I would have suffered only four reversals.
But it was time to put an end to my career as a National Hockey League goal judge. Like all great athletes. I had lost a step over the years. The climb from our locker room to my seat behind the net seemed steeper, the line for the pre-game meal in the press room seemed longer, the chair in which I sat for three periods seemed harder.(1)
It was just tougher to get into judging shape every season. It may have looked to the uneducated eye like I was just sitting around, but actually, goal-judging is a lot more sedentary than it looks.
And the wear-and-tear on your thumb is—as you can imagine—brutal. My job was to sit for two-and-a-half hours every night(2), pressing a button to turn on the red light above my goal every time the puck went in.
There were wild shootouts, crazy 6-5 offensive pyrotechnic displays, which could mean a half-dozen thumb movements a night. You add to that the ceremonial testing of the light before every period, multiply it by 45-55 games a year, and you can see what I mean about the fans not appreciating the physical toll goal-judging imposes on the body.
It was time to step aside for a younger man.(3)
A shame really. I’d done the job for fifteen years. The NHL thus ties the Orange County District Attorney’s Office for the title of employer who was able to put up with me the longest.
I was one of the original Anaheim Ducks goal judges. I was there opening night.(4) I called the first goal in franchise history.(5)
I got the job by writing a letter to the NHL when they announced the formation of a franchise in Anaheim. I pointed out to them that this was not Saskatoon; they were not gonna have thousands of people who had been goal judges before.
I told them I had a day job where people yelled and screamed about my calls, so that wouldn’t bother me.(6) And I figured out that as an L. A. Kings season-ticket holder for fifteen years, I had driven 60,000 miles to see hockey games.
This last was one of the most embarrassing admissions of my life. I did the math several times before I was able to face the horror of it. Fifteen years of making a hundred-mile roundtrip from south Orange County to Inglewood forty times a year came out to 60,000 miles.
Sixty thousand miles. The equivalent of fifteen trips across the country. To see hockey.
Worse yet, to see the Kings, who, while not exactly the doormat of the league, were at least one of the throw rugs.
Only in an application for a job as a goal judge would that not qualify as an admission against interest.
But it worked. They tried me out for a coupla months in a professional roller hockey league in Los Angeles. When I convinced them I could watch roller hockey for two hours without losing consciousness, they hired me.(7)
And it was more fun than anyone ought to be allowed to have.
For one thing, unlike the rest of the world, the National Hockey League recognizes degrees of impartiality. All season, we were expected to be impartial. But for the playoffs, we had to be REAL impartial . . . so they sent us on the road.
This meant me and a couple of my buddies from the officiating crew would go to Denver or Vancouver or Phoenix or Chicago or wherever they needed REAL impartial goal judges to replace the merely impartial goal judges of the home team. There we would officiate two hockey games in three nights.
On a typical assignment, we would fly in on Thursday and work the hockey game. Friday we would get up and play golf, and then—since there was an off-night between all playoff games—we would go to a sports bar and watch hockey games on television. Then Saturday, we would go play golf. Saturday night, officiate the hockey game. Sunday morning we’d fly home.
It was every nineteen-year-old’s dream weekend.(8)
Of course, it wasn’t all country clubs and margaritas. I had a full beer dumped on me by an irate fan in San Jose. I got stuck in a wild Cinco de Mayo parade in Denver and was almost late for the game. And one of the referees, Rob Shick, beat me like a drum on the golf course every year.
In short, it was grueling work and exposed us to the seamy underside of professional sports.
And, of course, there were those horrible reversals. When you make a mistake as a trial judge, the Court of Appeal sends you a politely worded opinion two years later that tells you what you should have done. They share it with the parties and their attorneys, so maybe a half-dozen people in the world know you erred.
In the NHL, they announce it to 17,000 beer-drinking fans and a local television audience: “The guy in the NHL blazer sitting behind the net, the guy with the beard who has nothing to do but watch the puck . . . he screwed up.”
At least that’s how it sounds to the goal judge, whose hearing is usually distorted by the glass box in which he is sitting—and the booing and laughter of the crowd.
It is, of course, even worse if the game is nationally televised. Once, when I was in trial and had to stay late to work on jury instructions, the crew chief asked the two penalty box officials if one of them would fill in as goal judge. One responded, “Are you kidding? Do I look like a masochist? The job description for goal judging is, ‘Sit there for three hours waiting to be embarrassed on national television.’ You gotta be crazy to do that job.”
You don’t have to be crazy. But it helps.
Which, of course, makes it a lot like my day job. You gotta be a little crazy to take a job where the best grade you ever get is 50%. And that’s the plight of the bench officer: Every call makes you one temporary friend and one permanent enemy.
That’s a little disconcerting when you first realize it. When it first dawns on you that not only are you not universally admired, not only do the attorneys not go home singing the praises of your Solomonic wisdom, but they invariably walk out at the end of the day convinced you blew at least three calls, it comes as a bit of a shock.
And in a civil case, with a half-dozen parties, you can get grades like 33% and 16%. Judges are people who did well in academia; we aren’t used to bad grades—much less F-minuses. Watching six of the seven lawyers in the courtroom struggle to find different euphemisms for “moron” is tough on us.
But in almost a quarter-century, first as a trial court judge and now as an appellate jurist, no litigant has booed me, thrown a water bottle at me, or drenched me in beer. That may not say a lot about my judicial skills, but it should indicate to you why I decided to leave the NHL and stay with the court system.
(1) And smaller.
(2) With only two fifteen-minute breaks, two one-minute time outs, and fifty or sixty stoppages of play a night. Sweat-shop working conditions.
(3) Yeah, I know, Lloyd Freeberg, the local criminal defense attorney who’s served as the other goal judge all these years, is still going strong at 94 or 95 or whatever his age is now. But Lloyd’s a physical freak who still PLAYS hockey two or three times a week. He’s been paying for ice time and his equipment with his social security check since the Eisenhower administration.
(4) Peter Zeughauser, another Orange County attorney, was the goal judge at the opposite end of the ice. How the only attorneys on the officiating crew ended up locked in a glass box every night is a question I try not to dwell on.
(5) And the league’s first two games in Great Britain, when the NHL’s 2007 two-game opening series between the Ducks and Kings in London was serendipitously scheduled the same week as my speech to the ABA’s International Law section.
(6) Let me hasten to point out that I was a trial judge then, and the hallway outside my chambers on a law-and-motion day resembled nothing so much as an 18th century asylum, with inmates tearing their hair out, screaming at the tops of their lungs, and trying to jump out windows.
(7) Pretty much the same qualification that convinced Pete Wilson I was Court of Appeal material.
(8) Except without the strippers.
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted via email at email@example.com.