Hockey refs, sports writers, your boss—the moment they start to act like they never get one wrong is the moment you start to wonder about them. The thing about referees, however, is that you rarely meet one away from the rink.
Sure, they portray complete confidence under the spotlight of an NHL game. They have to. But away from the glare, they will admit to missing the odd call, and in fact receive weekly, morale-boosting video highlight packages from their boss, Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom, “that reinforce the positives. What we’re doing right.”
Call it “Chicken Soup for National Hockey League Referees.”
Walkom follows that up with a video quiz at game speed, where the entire roster can have a run at a few of the tricky calls experienced over the past week by individual crews. “Our big thing is, we always get labeled as inconsistent,” Walkom says. “Well, how do you get consistent? You work at it.”
And, in the Year 2013, you get more video help.
Walkom’s zebras officiate the fastest major pro game in North America with the longest stretch between stoppages. It is inevitable that they will miss some calls, but Walkom is intent on exploring how further video review can help whittle that number down. “Fans are demanding perfection in every sport,” he says. “So we ask, what should be explored relative to technology? Should the referees have a monitor for some judgment calls?”
The balance is, you can’t stop the game every time a judgment is made. There are, on average, about 60 stoppages per game. So play occurs, on average, in one-minute segments. Walkom asks himself every day, which calls can be explored on video without slowing the game down to a crawl? “Where you would start is, where the play comes to a stop,” he says. “On a puck being shot out of play (delay of game), you might be able to get every one of those right. When we get it wrong we look bad. Imagine if we could always get those right?
Walkom worked the April 2012 playoff game when Raffi Torres concussed Marian Hossa and wonders about those plays—the “egregious fouls, where a player gets injured and you stop the play”—as well. No penalty was called on that play, and we’ll admit to carving Walkom’s crew the next day: “Hossa was released from hospital later that evening. Word out of Northwestern Hospital was they needed the bed for the referees who inexplicably did not see the play or call a penalty. They will be assessed this morning.”
What if in the future we were writing about two referees who—aided by a video monitor in the penalty box and in consultation with the Situation Room in Toronto—got the call right during the minutes that Hossa was being attended to? “And we all look good when we don’t miss something,” says Walkom.
We brought up the Luke Schenn high stick on Teemu Selanne that went unpenalized late in a 2-2 tie at Philly in October. The replay was clear. “It always is,” Walkom says wryly.
Could you turn over an onside call at the blueline that leads to a goal? You could, but that would lead to coaches asking for every close call to be reviewed. These things have to be entered into slowly, and installing a video monitor in the penalty box to enter the referee into the process—an idea we’ve championed for years—is a start. “Every (North American) sport, is using video,” Walkom says. “The demand from the fan is to move closer to perfection. We probably have the toughest game, because our continuous play is longer than all the others. But the (referee) is connected to the process in all other sports, and the reason is, it’s a judgment call.”
Whether a puck crossed the line is not a judgment call. Either it did or it didn’t. Frankly, neither is the call on whether a puck deflected over the glass. But, when a player is injured, like Selanne was, why not use the stoppage to see exactly what happened—and dole out any needed penalties.
It is time for monitors in the penalty box, and we predict the NHL’s GMs will be discussing that very thing at their Florida meetings in March.