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After Further Review

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers
We take you now to the NHL headquarters in Toronto where, in addition to offices, there is a sizeable television studio. The studio, however, isn't for the viewing pleasure of NHL employees.

All televised league games are monitored in the studio, known as the "war room." Mike Murphy, the NHL's senior vice president of hockey operations, and others keep an eye on situations that could be controversial.

"We're in constant contact with the video goal judges," said Murphy, a former NHL player and coach (Los Angeles and Toronto). "Every city has two video goal judges. If something happens in the game, we'll either call them or they'll call us and say `We've got a play here we're not sure about.' At that point, we say `Ring the buzzer and let's take a look at it.'

"We also try to keep track what's happening in our games: the length of commercials, the length of intermissions, player behavior, the referee and linesmen performances. In a nutshell, we're the watchdogs of the league."

The reaction of a significant number of hockey observers to this watchdog scenario is: is all this supervision really necessary? My sense is NHL referees call everything because they worry that they'll get a call from a supervisor the next day, asking why they didn't call a penalty.

Murphy acknowledges that referees and linesmen may be conscious that league officials are monitoring the games. "But it's a way to have accountability," he said. "Accountability in all areas of the sport is very important. The coaches are held accountable by the managers (and) the players are held accountable by the coaches.

"The director of officiating, Stephen Walkom, wants the flow of information back to him. He's able to coach his group of officials to be closer to what everybody in hockey wants. He wants to get general trends. He may (say) to his group, `The goalies are getting bumped too much. We've got to pay more attention to it.' He also may say, `You enforced the wrong rule here. You needed to give a speeding ticket, not a parking ticket.'"

According to Murphy, the watchdog role is in effect because the team owners and general managers want it. They believe there was too much inconsistency on decisions during games.

Murphy said the blanket supervision began before the 2004-05 work stoppage. "There were some initial stages going back to 2000," he said. "It got to the point where we realized that we had to do all the games. We couldn't just do the odd game. We had to have consistency. It's the way sports have gone, to high tech, to get the right answers more often."

Murphy understands the view that such control is excessive. But he said the league wanted a "central group" of impartial people making the decisions. "We don't want a video goal judge who's been wined and dined by the local (general) manager making a call for his team when the puck didn't go in the net," he said. "In sports, you're always trying to stay as middle-of-the-road as you can.

"In baseball, why don't they have a computer make the call for balls and strikes? Well, the computer is not right all the time. There's feel, there's judgment. You can't program the computer for that."

Under the NHL's new system it seems there is no room for referees to employ their feel for the flow of the game. To me, the referees have become nameless robots. When Murphy played in the NHL (1971-83), the referees didn't wear helmets and many had identifiable personalities.

As Murphy points out though, that wasn't always a good thing. When teams would check who was refereeing their game, their reaction would be, "He lets a lot go" or "he calls a tight game." Murphy said the NHL wants to eliminate such flexibility.

"We don't want the refs to be bigger than the players or the game," he said. "You want the refs as an important part of the game. You want them to enforce the rules to make sure the game is played fairly and safely. To have the (referees) as generic as possible is fine. We don't want the fans distracted because it's a referee who made a bad call in their last game.

"We don't want them to be the focal point of a game, which very often they (were) in the past. When I played (sometimes) the referee became the problem in the game, not the players. Back then they had personalities and they exuded their personalities on the game."

Murphy also addressed the fighting issue. Fighting majors are down in the NHL. When Ben Eager of the Flyers and Pittsburgh's Chris Thorburn starting duking it out at the Wachovia Center on January 13, the linesmen jumped in and stopped it. This prompted a reaction in the press box that since the game was airing on NBC, the game officials were instructed to curtail fighting.

Not true, according to Murphy. "A job description for linesmen is, if they can prevent a fight, do so," he said. "But once players have determined they are going to fight, get out of the way.

"The linesmen partially interceded (between Eager and Thorburn) and then the fight started. By that time, (the linesmen) were half in and half out."

Murphy added that if a fight appears to be a mismatch, the linesmen should break it "because we don't somebody getting injured.

On a full game night, sometimes officials in the studio get very busy. During a recent Flyers game, when there was a delay on a review, Flyers television analyst Keith Jones provided some welcome humor when he said, "There must have been another call coming in at the same time."

Road Blues

When the Flyers began their eight-game road excursion in late December, I decided to keep track of the individual scoring. You can tell a lot about a team by the way it plays on the road under adverse conditions.

While the Flyers never journeyed outside the East, playing eight consecutive road games is a daunting task. When they put together a three-game winning streak, hope flickered that they would return home with a decent record.

However, Peter Forsberg injured his groin early in the fourth game, which the Flyers still won. Then they dropped four in a row.

Despite missing the last four games, Forsberg led the Flyers in scoring with six points (all assists). This illustrates the Flyers problems when Forsberg isn't in the lineup. Kyle Calder (five goals, five points), Mike Knuble (3-2-5) and Jeff Carter (0-5-5) were the next highest scorers.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.

Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sports writer. He was the Flyers'' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1981, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.

He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.
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