How NHL officials prepare for season and an evolving league

Referee Francois St. Laurent, left, talks with Calgary Flames goalie Mike Smith after Smith received a penalty for interference during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Los Angeles Kings, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/AP photo

In the past decade, a flat-lining NHL salary cap, technological advances, rules changes and increased speed and youth have altered roster and game strategies for general managers, coaches and players.

The NHL’s officials have felt the impact, too. They’re doing everything they can to keep up.

“I think the pace of the game and the energy in the game from the first line right through to the fourth line is really at an unprecedented level,” said Stephen Walkom, the NHL’s vice president and director of officiating. “In years past, you’d be able to say, well, ‘This guy can’t skate so well,’ but there’s nobody on the ice like that now. Everybody can move, everybody has a decent shot, and I think you’re seeing it in our team now, too.

“There’s no such thing as an official being out of shape or an official that can’t skate. They know that because of these 45-second shifts where players go all out, it’s vital they stay in shape so they can keep up and stay out of the way.”

NHL officials prepare for the season the same way teams do. They hold a training camp. The site of the camp changed frequently in past years, but for the last three, it has been at the HarborCenter in Buffalo, New York. Here’s what officials do at that camp.

“We buy as much beer as we can and we build a pyramid out of cans,” Walkom said, laughing.

Here’s what the officials really do.

“We put them right into a hockey environment because we know they have to go to exhibition games right away,” Walkom said. “Although we’re working with them on the rules changes, and we watch video and do classroom sessions, our guys want to be up to speed relative to positioning on the ice. They know there are lots of guys trying to make teams in preseason games. We owe it to the game to be ready.

“We work on repetitive movements on the ice. We also let them play hockey and we officiate the hockey. We have enough guys with the minor-league guys there — there’s about 80 guys at camp — that we can make six teams and the quality of hockey was actually pretty good this year.”

There aren’t many goalies in that officiating crew, but Walkom found an app that allows him to rent goalies for the camp.

“Nothing better than hockey with real goalies,” Walkom said. “Our guys love it, and that’s how it should be. If they don’t have that passion for the game they should be in another profession.”

Officials spend their classroom time going over the rules changes or standard changes each season. They also discuss the impact technology has had on the game through video reviews of plays and their performances.

“Our guys are all about getting it right and technology has helped in that regard so we’re all for it,” Walkom said. “We’ve reduced the number goaltender interference penalties because guys don’t want to go in there as much now, and we’ve reduced the number of times nets get knocked off, which speeds up the game. We took down 30 goals last season, but we added 10 after looking at the video and realizing there was a better call. That’s 40 times in a year, so I think it’s been useful.”

Walkom acknowledged that there will be tough calls, controversial calls, and even missed calls every season. The conversation continues for how to reduce those and all potential solutions are on the table. As an example, Walkom discussed the possibility of making the blue line a plane like the NFL goal line, rather than requiring a player’s skate to make contact to avoid offside.

It’s possible that rule could ease officials’ ability to judge whether a player’s skate is a fraction of an inch off the ice or making contact, but Walkom said there are concerns to consider.

“One is a safety concern about a skate being in the air, and then you have to consider what is the result and what are the unintended consequences?” he said. “It might be harder for a linesman to call than when a player’s skate is making contact, and you know it. And then there’s the tag-up rule, which would create an inconsistency with our application of the rule, but there has been some discussion of this change and it will continue.”

Because they are traveling in crews throughout the season, NHL officials only get together en masse once a year at camp. For that reason, Walkom tries to make the camp a social event as much as a training camp to build bonds and a greater sense of purpose.

“We’re human beings on the ice so we make mistakes, but we can still get it right and we’re working hard to do that,” Walkom said. “Every one of these guys wants to get it right.”

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