TORONTO -- They’ve already watched the replay several times before the phone rings.
|Evan Grossman got to watch 14 hockey games with NHL executives Colin Campbell (above) and Mike Murphy in "The War Room" on Saturday night.
The close calls will bring several sets of eyes to the same monitor here in this dimly lit room that can only be described as the central nervous system of the National Hockey League. On the busiest night of the season, with 14 games on the schedule, an apparent goal is being watched again and again.
Does it count or not?
The phone hardly gets through the first ring most of the time before Mike Murphy, the NHL’s vice president of hockey operations, picks it up. With one finger in his ear and both of his eyes on the replay in front of him, Murphy goes through an apparent Jochen Hecht goal with the video replay official at Nassau Coliseum in New York.
By now, there are several sets of eyes watching the replay behind Murphy, a quick discussion and breakdown of the play ensues -- “it went in off 32’s stick,” 32 being Islander defenseman Brendan Witt -- and the group comes to a unanimous decision.
“We’ve got a good goal,” Murphy says into the phone.
On the monitor in front of Murphy, the referee at the Coliseum hands his phone back through the glass, turns, and point to center ice. It counts.
Welcome to the NHL Video Room.
Also known in hockey circles simply as “The War Room,” this is where the game’s quality control takes place in real time, where goals are awarded or nullified, where referees are graded on their performance, where the trends of the game are charted on precise color-coded graphs, and where they take note of everything that happens on the ice.
Murphy doesn’t like to use the term “policing” the game, but that’s exactly what goes on here. Big Brother is watching, and he’s got a room stocked with 25 television monitors and a wall of DVD recorders.
Every second of every NHL game funnels through the video room, where each match is monitored as it happens in real time by at least one operator, who watches closely for goal reviews, penalties, non-calls, player behavior and just about every nuance of the game that exists. If two players who don’t like each other are on the ice at the same time, it sends up a red flag in the war room.
If the score is getting out of hand and there’s a potential for the game to get a little chippy, that sends up a red flag in the war room.
If an official is calling a game too loose or too tight, that sends up a red flag in the war room.
If a coach is shown on television looking unhappy about something, that, too, sends up a red flag in here.
When something of note happens, the hockey ops agent watching that game will put it in his report. Sometimes, such as on goal reviews or penalties called at crucial moments of the game --like in overtime -- he’ll replay it on the main screen in front of Murphy before making the entry in his report.
“We kind of stay on top of everything,” Murphy told NHL.com before nestling in for the busiest night he’ll have all season, a night he’ll be required to watch 11 games simultaneously at times.
“What we do is police – well, maybe that’s not the right word – monitor the game, and not only just for reviewed goals. There were 500 last year, out of 1,230 games. We try to find out what’s happening with players and what’s going on in the game.”
The items on the hockey ops checklist also include player equipment and player discipline.
“We’re also here to track the game from an officiating point of view,” Murphy says. “Was the officiating good? We expect it to be good, at worst. And great all the time.”
The video room is staffed by Murphy and his crew, who all come from different backgrounds, but share an acute attention to detail and hawk eyes when it comes to watching a hockey game. Murphy is a former NHL player and head coach, and he sits at the front of the war room at a double-desk he shares with Colin Campbell, the NHL senior vice president and director of hockey operations. The war room was born under Campbell’s watch with one of its many responsibilities providing him with instant evidence of player infractions that require hearings within 24 hours of when they take place.
Campbell came to the NHL after serving as head coach of the New York Rangers, where his right-hand man was Damian Echevarrieta. When he replaced Brian Burke running hockey ops, Campbell had Echevarrieta construct the first version of the video room in an office at the League’s New York headquarters. That was 1998, and the technology was nowhere close to the NASA-type setup they have in Toronto now.
“It was a miniature version,” Echevarrieta said. “We had one TV with a VCR hooked up to it and a satellite dish hanging out the window.”
One night, Echevarrieta recalls, the signal went out. When he raced upstairs to check on the dish, a cleaning lady had dismantled his whole operation.
Times – and technology – have dramatically changed. The war room is now housed in the NHL’s Toronto office, where some offices overlook the massive Rogers Centre and in some you can hear the cheers after Leafs goals below in the Air Canada Centre. There are 25 monitors in the Roger Nielson Video Room, named after the NHL coach known for his innovations in bringing video to the game and whose picture hangs on a wall in the room.
|Retired NHLer Kris King, now a Director in the Hockey Operations department, has a key role in The War Room.
Echevarrieta sits behind Murphy on one side at a workstation that has three widescreen monitors, TiVo recording capability, a laptop computer and a remote control that can send images to one of the two 80-inch HD screens up front. Tim Campbell sits at another station, Kris King
, the former NHL player, is at another, while John Sedgwick is at a fourth. Sedgwick used to be a lawyer, but now he’s enforcing NHL law in his new line of work.
“He’s a very good addition,” Murphy said.
Kay Whitmore, whose office is filled with goalie equipment he measures before it’s used in NHL games, is also a war room regular, proving that the men who work here are as diverse as the many things they’re tasked with doing.
Kind of like the guys who guard the Stanley Cup, the guys working in the war room have an awesome responsibility. Basically, this is how things happen:
During the course of the game, a play will happen that requires a second look. Goal reviews are the most important most of the time, so when there’s a close call, one of the video operators will freeze the play while the goal judge at the arena calls the war room. Murphy’s attention will be pointed to the play on his screen and he’ll talk to the off-ice official. The play will be reviewed several times and the group in the war room will make the ruling.
Most of the time, their ruling concurs with the referee’s first reaction on the ice. While NHL refs are the best in the business, technological advances have also improved the rulings on close calls.
In the past, pucks would get lost in dark backgrounds and optical illusions made it difficult to determine goals. But with high-definition cameras -- specifically in overhead positions above the goals that are being installed this season in every NHL rink -- there is little hockey ops can’t see anymore.
“Ninety percent of goal reviews are determined by overhead cameras,” Murphy said. “But pucks would get lost in black uniforms and standard TV didn’t pick that up. High-definition does.”
Hockey ops is responsible for a whole lot more than just goal reviews, though.
In one game a few years ago, hockey ops was faced with a situation where too much de-icer was used at one end of the rink, making the area in front of one goal less stable than the other. The decision came from the video room to have the teams change sides midway through the period because it was the fairest way to deal with the problem.
NHL.com got to spend a night in the war room recently and words don’t do justice to what these guys do. Check out the following video clips of the room on the busiest night of the season with 14 games to watch – 11 going on at the same time – and the nerve center of the NHL abuzz with all the action.