How coach’s challenges will impact NHL games

Chicago Blackhawks senior advisor Scotty Bowman joins Prime Time Sports to talk about coaches challenges, the lack of scoring and reducing the size of goaltending equipment.

Mistakes? Former referee Stephen Walkom made a few.

So as the NHL’s current director of officiating went over the newly expanded video replay with his referees at training camp last week, he highlighted some instances from his own career where it would have helped him be better.

One missed call in particular lingers in Walkom’s mind — he declined to share it publicly for fear of unnecessarily opening a can of worms — but needless to say it came at a crucial moment of a big game.

In real time, he signalled a goal on the ice. Afterwards, upon reviewing the tape, he realized the play should have been blown dead beforehand because of goaltender interference.

“Everybody has a play,” Walkom said Thursday in an interview. “Every referee is human. Seeing another view, seeing the overhead, seeing it in slow motion, (there are) some where you definitely would change the call.”

Officials will finally have that opportunity when the puck drops for real in a couple of weeks. Expanded video review is being implemented in the NHL by way of a coach’s challenge — with only missed offside plays or goaltender interference allowed to be looked at again.

When those occur, the coach will signal for a timeout and specify exactly what he wants reviewed. The referee will then relay that information to the crowd and be handed a headset and video monitor at the time keeper’s bench, where he can look at numerous replays of what’s happened.

The final determination will be made by the official(s) on the ice — just as umpires get to do with reviews in Major League Baseball or referees do in the NFL. In some cases, the referees will be highlighting their own mistakes.

“If there’s a better call — it might not be the call that the fans want in the building — but if there is a better call than they are going to be empowered to make it,” said Walkom. “I think our guys fully support overruling themselves in the game because they know it best serves the game. They’ll take ownership of it.

“I think they’ll be real good at it when it does occur.”

A key aspect of the new rule is that it won’t be used as a way to unnecessarily stop or slow the game because a coach loses his timeout when he makes an incorrect challenge. So you must have a timeout at your disposal to initiate a challenge — except in the final minute of play or in overtime, when reviews will be prompted by the situation room in Toronto.

It’s important to note that this isn’t going to be happening every Saturday when you tune into “Hockey Night in Canada.”

The NHL’s hockey operations department marked every instance of a disputed offside or interference goal over 1,230 regular-season games last season and identified only a small handful that should have gone differently.

“The egregious mistakes are harder to find than you think,” said Walkom. “It’s such a small percentage of all goals scored. I think we had seven or eight offside goals scored last year out of 6,700 goals. The goaltender interference plays that you could say were real misses — that there was an obvious better call — you’re talking five or six.

“But when we get them wrong it hurts; I think it hurts the officials, it hurts the game and it really upsets the participants in the game.”

The only other rulebook changes that will affect officials this season is a new faceoff rule where the defensive centre has to put his stick down first — it’s designed to give the attacking team a slight advantage — and the dramatic shift to 3-on-3 overtime.

As we’ve already seen in exhibition play, those extra periods tend to be wide open affairs and Walkom said the challenge for officials will be to keep teams honest when they’re changing players on the fly.

“Our guys will have to be aware of what’s going on at the benches,” he said.

The men who officiate the NHL have grown accustomed to making adjustments. They happen every season.

However, Walkom — who had a distinguished career as a zebra, earning every big assignment imaginable — remembers a time when video review wasn’t so warmly embraced by his brethren. There was real pushback when the NHL started handling those reviews at a centralized room in Toronto, with some referees viewing the change as a Big Brother-styled measure designed to second-guess their decisions.

“When video review first came in, when the situation room used to call down, we’d say ‘Oh, what does God want?”‘ said Walkom. “That was kind of the thought process. Our guys have got back to realizing that it’s a very useful tool in getting it right on the ice.”

Ultimately, no official wants to leave an arena with regrets, especially when the stakes are at their highest down the stretch or in the playoffs. It’s certainly happened in the past.

What the coach’s challenge amounts to is a serious safeguard against that possibility.

“It will be to fix mistakes that would be obvious to my grandmother on the chesterfield in Alliston watching the game,” said Walkom.

In other words, the kind of calls that absolutely need to be right. Now we know they will be.

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