BOCA RATON, Fla. – Back in Stephen Walkom’s day, they referred to the video review room as “Heaven.”
It was a half-joking/half-not response to the goals that started to be overturned by the NHL’s hockey operations department because the puck was deemed to be kicked in the net. Respected referees like Walkom couldn’t believe how often the decisions made in video review contradicted the way he had called the game for decades.
In closed company, the stripes would lament that only God could see the level of detail the league was scrutinizing from on high. And they were mere mortals.
“We got to the point where we didn’t know what it was, but we always knew what it was. Do you understand what I mean?” Walkom said Monday. “Like we knew what a kick was. It took us like eight, nine, 10 years to finally say ‘Woah, we’re seeing way too much. Let’s go back to the spirit of the rule.’
“And now we call it the same way in the video room as we always did on the ice.”
The NHL’s director of officiating tells this story while a debate rages around him about what can be done to bring more consistency to video reviews for goaltender interference. He can’t escape the feeling of déjà vu.
Discussion on the issue got so involved Monday that the general managers ended up pushing back other planned topics to Day 2 of their annual three-day meeting. There are a range of viewpoints here as diverse as the sport’s Leafs-Habs rivalry – with Lou Lamoriello telling reporters “there should be a change and there will be” while counterpart Marc Bergevin said “there’s nothing major wrong with the system.”
The best guess is that something will happen before everyone goes their separate ways on Wednesday afternoon. What exactly? That remains to be seen.
Colin Campbell, the NHL’s head of hockey operations, left open the possibility of creating a penalty for any unsuccessful challenge for goaltender interference – a move he believes would chill the number of total reviews, just as it’s done with offside plays this season.
The GMs also discussed the merits of having the NHL release video explanations after controversial calls and shifting the final say from the referees on the ice to a centralized decision-maker in the Toronto video room. Some would like to see a current or former referee put in a position to render that judgment.
In the eyes of Walkom, there is some over-analysis going on with this issue. He liked when commissioner Gary Bettman spoke at the all-star game and instructed referees to “take a quick look, but don’t search it to death.”
Just as the league once had to simplify its approach to reviewing pucks directed into the net with a skate – and when was the last time one of those was the source of major controversy? – he feels there’s a similar path worth following here on goaltender interference.
“Only we don’t want to have to wait 10 years,” said Walkom. “We’re trying to say ‘Hey, let’s take a look at these plays. What’s a good play in real time?’ We shouldn’t be searching on that play for anything that we wouldn’t have called under this rule previously in real time.”
He points to the goal Auston Matthews had overturned against Colorado and the one Ryan Strome had called back against Calgary as examples where referees looked too hard for evidence of interference.
Both would stand up today, Walkom believes, after the league instructed his officials to ease off coming out of the all-star break.
“It’s a goal because it’s covered under the rule that you can battle for the puck,” he said of the Matthews play from Jan. 23. “And my big belief in all this is be transparent, we make mistakes, it’s OK. I live with it every day. It’s OK. If we make a mistake, admit it right away, that means you’re not compounding it.
“I think once we do that we’re all going to be better in this process.”
Ultimately, it will be the GMs who dictate where this goes. They watched and debated 14 separate clips involving goaltender interference on Monday morning and had veteran referee Dan O’Halloran in the room to offer an official’s perspective on why certain calls were made.
Walkom shared his viewpoint as well and it’s an important one given the 1,000-plus NHL games he refereed during two separate stints in stripes.
“To me, I think when it all comes out, we did this to fix the egregious ones,” said Walkom. “We didn’t put this in place to search for plays that we never historically disallowed or allowed. Kicking the puck is the best analogy. People forget, but I don’t forget: I was on the ice for that. I’d be like ‘Well, that’s a goal’ and then we’d go to review [and it’d be overturned]. ‘Are you kidding me?’
“We don’t want to go there again.”