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These Guys Rule: Sorting Hockey's Referees and Linesmen

The NHL's officiating boss says his workforce is always prepared for the wicked-fast pace of league play, 'grateful' for video review & 'only mad' about one thing

by Bob Condor / @NHLSeattle_ /

When NHL referees or linesmen finish officiating a game, the best result is no one is talking about them. It means players, coaches, media and fans all agree: The game was called fairly.

But make no mistake: The league's 34 full-time referees and 34 full-time linesmen want to be noticed by Stephen Walkom and his staff.

"Our referees and linesmen are an unusual workforce," says Walkom, NHL vice president and director of officiating.

Walkom explains the on-ice officials work hard, never complain, always prepare and are constantly eager to improve. In fact, with advances in video technology, the officials can review every one of their own calls or face-off puck drops from every game.

"They only get mad when they don't get to work the playoffs," says Walkom.

That's because only 20 referees and 20 linesmen get to work the Stanley Cup Playoffs, based on evaluation of their performance during the regular season. The on-ice officials covet the oldest and singularly authentic trophy in American team sports in their own relentless fashion. The playoff push will get even more difficult when the NHL likely adds one additional ref and linesman each to the mix when NHL Seattle starts play in the fall of 2021.

Part of enjoying any sport as a spectator is understanding the officiating. The more we know about the game assignment-not just the rules-the more we can appreciate how competent officials make it a better sport for fans.

In hockey, a smooth, fast-paced "game flow" is what makes fans fall in love with the game. There is back-and-forth action, playmaking, shots on goals, great saves, skaters practically flying on their skate blades. Walkom says that flow is squarely in the hands of the two linesmen assigned to each game.

"The two linesmen don't wear armbands," he says. "They are primarily responsible for game flow by regulating two main areas: Offside plays and icing. Both are more complex than people think."

Icing occurs more frequently, about nine times per NHL game on average--and has nothing to do with baking a cake. It's also no longer about whether a defensive player first touches a shot or puck dump by an opposing player from the opponent side of the red line (aka center-ice line).

Now the linesmen must determine an icing call at the faceoff circle to the right or left of the defending team's goalie. The rule was changed for safety reasons; it was formerly common to watch two opposing players bearing down on an "iced" puck.

Quick refresher/explainer: Icing is called to prevent a defensive team under pressure from simply "clearing the zone" by shooting or dumping the puck from its side of the red line all the way down to other end of the ice. Not called, the sport would include much more time in which no player is handling or moving the puck with their stick.

The is one exception to icing: If a team is shorthanded due to a penalty, the team on the "penalty kill" is allowed to ice the puck. Even so, that can be hard to accomplish because there is an extra player to stop the icing and/or today's NHL goalies are highly capable of handling the puck and passing to a teammate to start a counterattack.

The two linesmen are also responsible to call offside, which occurs when a player's skates precede the puck in the offensive zone (where other team's goal is located). Offside is defined as when both skates have fully crossed the relevant blue line into the offensive zone and out of the center-ice neutal zone. Offside is called an average of five to six times each game.

NHL coaches can now challenge the linesman's offside call if a goal is subsequently scored on the entry into the zone. A video review will result in upholding the goal call or disallowing the goal.

The linesmen have what Walkom calls the "immediate duty" of restarting the game with a faceoff after play has stopped. The faceoff puck-drop features two player going toe-to-toe and stick-to-stick. Both sticks have to be on the ice, the visiting player going first and the home player immediately following. At the same time, the faceoff requires surrounding players to maintain a 15-foot boundary until the puck is dropped.

Referees drop the puck for center-ice faceoffs at the start of each period and after goals are scored. The linesmen handle the other 50 to 60 faceoffs every game.

Walkom says it is important that NHL faceoffs are consistent from linesmen-to-linesmen and game-to-game.

"Puck possession is so important in today's game," says Walkom. "We want every faceoff to have integrity in its mechanics. The official needs to make sure neither player is encroaching, that skates are on the hash marks."

One more major duty for linesmen: They are responsible for communicating with the benches on line charges - many of which are on the fly and requires precise time of players exiting the ice and teammates jumping into play.

They also monitor stoppages of play as opposing players come together with "not really a kinship," says Walkom, and "linesmen become peacemakers."

That's a lot of work for the pair officials in stripes without the orange armbands. So what's left for the referee to do?

Well, one big job is calling penalties, especially what officials like to refer to as primary group of hooking, holding, tripping and interference. It's such a big job, there are two refs to cover the ice and both teams.

Calling penalties involves more than meets the eye or practically can even be seen by the human eye, says Walkom, who served two separate tours as a referee, officiating more than 600 regular season games, 84 Stanley Cup Playoffs games, the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, 2004 World Cup of Hockey and two Stanley Cup Finals.

"The speed and pace of today's game is unprecedented," says Walkom. "The precision demanded for penalty calls is at its lowest ever tolerance [among players, coaches, management, media and fans].

"Fifteen years ago, a hook would be noticed by my grandmother who never played hockey. Television made it easier to see the penalty [called or not] on simply replay. Today's is now so quick, that stick on the hand might be just a split second. It might be obvious on the TV angle but the producer has some time to produce that video angle. Our guys have to call it in real time."

Walkom is quick to add that referees and linesmen "are always grateful" for technical assistance that might come in the form of feedback from NHL officiating evaluators or the real-time reversal of offside.

"It's untrue that our officials resist it," says Walkom.

Walkom provides a concise case study: NHL goals were once determined by a human judge in a goal box behind the net who watched to make sure a puck completely crossed the goal line before switching on the red goal light.

"Even as kids we knew we were playing in a big game if there was a goal judge [and not just the referee deciding a goal was scored]," recalls Walkom. "Then, the League moved to an official upstairs in a video booth and now to centralized 'situation room' [in the NHL's Toronto offices] to make everyone of a regular season's seventy-five hundred-plus goals are good goals."

It's why you will see one of the two referees conferring with official scorer and no puck is dropped until the Toronto room says the goal stands. Fun fact: The referee is officially responsible for identifying the player who scored while the official scorer for each NHL game is tasked with determining up to two assists on the goal.

One more vital duty for the referees - they must quickly size up each game they officiate.

"The game might be flowing or could get chippy," says Terry Gregson, a 25-season referee who was the NHL director of officiating for four years from 2009 to 2013.

If it's chippy, you might call a penalty or two to keep a game under control, explains Gregson.

"Great officials understand the difference between emotion and abuse. It's not just about raising the arm [to give a certain penalty signal]. You can control the game with good communication."

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