The referee-in-chief of the Federal Hockey League resigned on Monday after a physical altercation between the owner of the Elmira Enforcers and on-ice officials that caused police intervention and the cancelation of the game after just one period on Sunday afternoon.
"We accepted Eugene Binda's resignation. We appreciate what he did for us in the nine years he's been [with the FHL]. Now we'll see which officials want to stay, if there's any new ones and if any of the officials in his stable want to carry on with us," said Andrew Richards, the league's vice commissioner, told ESPN.
The Federal Hockey League is a Single-A professional minor league in its ninth season of operation that currently has six teams.
Binda said he resigned after this incident because if it was the latest in a series involving his officials.
"We've had enough. This league has been known for not protecting our guys. But we've never been physically assaulted. This one here was over the edge, and we're taking a stand. We're not going to be treated this way," he told ESPN on Monday. "I don't go to work to get beat up. I don't go to work to get spit on."
According to Elmira police, officers were called to First Arena at around 5 p.m. on Sunday for a report of a disturbance at the Enforcers' game against the Carolina Thunderbirds. Officers were met with an "unruly crowd" complaining of inconsistent performance by the on-ice officials, and the aftermath of a physical altercation between the game officials and "Elmira Enforcers team management" in owner Robbie Nichols. Once everyone went to their respective locker rooms, officers conducted interviews with all involved.
"It should be noted that no one was hurt and/or injured nor were any reported. Due to the altercation FHL Officials suspended play and the game was subsequently terminated. After further conversation with the parties involved this matter is closed upon their request and requires nothing more at this time," Elmira police said in a statement.
The game had taken an ugly turn early in the first period when Enforcers captain Ahmed Mahfouz was sent to the hospital following an illegal check from a Thunderbirds player, one that resulted in a five-minute major penalty and a misconduct. That scene left Nichols angry.
"They're like family. They become your kids," he told ESPN in a phone interview on Monday.
He grew even angrier when Carolina was awarded a goal by head coach/player Andre Niche. He said a replay on the arena's Jumbotron clearly showed the goal shouldn't have counted.
"The referee pointed down 10 times to say it's a goal, and the replay shows that the puck never crossed the line. So me, being a former hockey player and coach, I was upset. When they came off the ice at the end of the period, I was standing there, with my arms crossed, asking why the in F did he call that a goal?" said Nichols, who was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in 1983 and played in the Detroit Red Wings' minor league system.
"Never in my life have I had a referee walk right through me. Like, he just bumped and pushed me out of the way -- we have video. Then, this linesman comes flying in and just double-pushes me. Look, I got a new heart valve and a separated shoulder and I'm kinda old now. So I pushed him back, and it was a little scene."
A report by local station WETM said that Nichols "was held back as he swung his arms." He denies swinging his arms but acknowledges he was being held back from the officials by team personnel.
After the incident, the officials returned to the ice, where the head referee called Binda, the supervisor of officials for the FHL. The decision was made for them to not continue officiating the game.
"I was yelling at him from the hallway. But then the guy said he felt his life was being threatened. They called the police, had them escorted out of the building, and it just carried on like that," said Nichols.
Elmira chief of police Joseph Kane told ESPN all three game officials and Nichols were interviewed after the game. "Towards the end of this, the three referees decided they didn't want to pursue any charges. As of now, it's my understanding that they didn't want anybody charged," said Kane.
Binda said the officials are, in fact, seeking to press charges.
"That's completed inaccurate. The officials want to press charges," he said. "The [ref] that was on the ice was a former New York police officer. He wanted the state police, not the local cops."
After the referees left the game, Nichols called FHL commissioner Don Kirnan.
"I said, 'This has never happened to me before. What do you do?'" said Nichols. "I told him there were some guys around that were linesmen in the AHL and asked if I should call them. But he said that we had to call the game."
The Elmira vs. Carolina game officially appears as "canceled" on the FHL website. The Enforcers still held their "chuck-a-puck" contest and players still took part in a "skate with the fans" promotion that day. Fans holding tickets to that game could use them on Wednesday for an exhibition between Elmira and the New York City Fire Department hockey team or on Saturday against Watertown. But with over 2,000 fans in attendance, the Enforcers lost a significant amount of concession revenue minus two periods and an intermission.
Nichols said the FHL hadn't indicated if he was going to be disciplined for the incident.
Binda was responsible for the coordination of officials in the FHL, including assignments and acting a liaison between them, the teams and the league. He's also referee-in-chief for the Eastern Junior Hockey League (EJHL), Empire Junior Hockey League (EmJHL), Eastern Hockey Federation, and Massachusetts Selects Hockey League.
In an email acquired by Bus League Hockey, Binda used the scheduling site Horizon Web Ref to indicate he was done with the Federal League.
"I have been with the FHL since its inaugural season and have battled with the league on multiple occasions on the safety of the officiating staff, today was the last straw. I cannot in good conscience continue in my role as the supervisor of officials and in the future have one of you seriously injured by a player or team administrator," he wrote. "I am going to unpublished (sic) call the games until the league figures out who they want to take over. I will not be back!"
Richards said he's confident the FHL will have officials available for this weekend's games, with potential replacement referees and linesmen "coming out of the woodwork," including some who have worked in the American Hockey League and ECHL. "We're moving forward with a plan to get qualified officials on the ice," he said.
Nichols said he's embarrassed with how the incident played out. "I'm one of those guys that can tell you when I'm wrong. It would have been easier if I had never gone back into the tunnel," he said. "I'm embarrassed that it went down like this."