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NHL referees and linesmen gear up for the playoffs

by Bob Condor
When NHL Senior Vice President and Director of Officiating Terry Gregson talks to the 20 referees and 20 linesmen assigned to the first round of the playoffs, he frames each series as "a 21-plus-period hockey game" rather than what could potentially be seven individual games. The distinction is more than mathematical.

"The idea is to stay consistent during the entire series even as referees switch each game," Gregson said. "We want coaches and players know what to expect from period to period."

Gregson met with all postseason officials by mega-conference call on Monday this week. While there was serious business to discuss, some congratulations were in order as well. The 20 referees were selected from a pool of 33, making the cut based on at least 25 in-person evaluations during the regular season and dozens more on videotape. Same deal for linesmen, who are picked from a pool of 34. The selected officials found out their fates by a Monday morning email.

After picking the 20 referees, Gregson's next move is to select pairings for the first five games of each of the eight playoffs series.

"I put guys together [each game has two refs, of course] based on personality, style, energy level and experience," Gregson said. "I have the pairings ready Sunday morning, then wait to assign them once we get match-ups."

That's when the travel logistics get, well, let's say interesting, as Gregson and his staff try to make sure officials can make it from city to city, since no referee pairing will work the same series two games in a row.

After his call with the postseason officials, Gregson hooked up later in the day with general managers and coaches from all 16 NHL clubs in a mandatory call. One important matter on the agenda: The NHL will be cracking down on any incidents during warm-ups, especially contact between opponents that a player might consider "gamemanship" but the League regards as off-limits. GMs and coaches were made "strongly aware" that violating this policy will result in a player being removed from the lineup for that game.

"The standby referee for each game will monitor warm-ups from the ice level and our series manager will watch from the video booth," Gregson said. "They will talk after the warm-ups about any contact or other actions with an inciting aspect."

Gregson has assigned "series managers" to each playoff matchup: Kevin Collins for Montreal-Washington, Don Koharski with Philadelphia-New Jersey, E.J. McGuire following Boston-Buffalo, Bob Hall on Ottawa-Pittsburgh, Kay Whitmore for Colorado-San Jose, Mick McGeough with Nashville-Chicago, Kris King following Los Angeles-Vancouver and Rob Shick on Detroit-Phoenix.

"I have a team of 40 officials, but they don't all gather in one locker room," said Gregson. "So I have eight coaches working with each group of four at the games."

Here's some of what those refs and linesmen will be hearing as six more teams open series Thursday and Game 1 of the Predators-Blackhawks series tops five games scheduled for Friday.
  • "Great officials understand the difference between emotion and abuse." Gregson acknowledged that everything gets elevated during the playoffs, including adrenaline and player stress -- especially when favored home teams are upset in Game 1. "Calling the game is more than just raising your arm," Gregson said. "You can control a situation with good communication too."
  • "Get your homework done early." The opening minutes of a game and series (remember the 21-plus-periods) can help put out the message to coaches and players alike about how the series will be officiated. "It might mean calling a penalty early. It depends. If a game has a good flow, that's one thing. If it's chippy early, you want to grab control right away."
  • "Nothing changes from the season." Gregson explained that he still wants, say, linesmen to have high awareness around the net because referees have other responsibilities. "And we will still be calling the hook, hold, trip and interference as we did all year during the regular season."
  • "Don't succumb to pressure from players on faceoffs." Each faceoff should look and feel the same to players, no matter who is dropping the puck. "We want integrity in the mechanics every faceoff," said Gregson. "Each linesman needs to give clear, concise instructions."
One topic thoroughly discussed by NHL officiating crews and series managers --and fans will be right behind them -- is goalie interference. It's bound to become a focal point in most series, usually sooner instead of later.

"We keep telling guys look for the 'good hockey goal,' " Gregson said. "The goaltender needs be able to move freely in the blue paint. But it's never black-and-white, never perfect."

Which leads Gregson to one of his favorite and most vital points as pucks drop throughout the NHL: "The only people who judge the game's goals and play in real-time are the on-ice officials. Everyone else is looking at the videotape as soon as play stops."

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