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Off-ice officials are a fourth team at every game

by Sam Kasan
The Pittsburgh Penguins trailed the Carolina Hurricanes, 1-0, in the third period Thursday night. Pittsburgh was on a power play and had the puck in Carolina's zone. Evgeni Malkin blasted a slap shot from the point. The puck caromed off Hurricanes goaltender Michael Leighton's shoulder and into the net to tie the game. The referee signaled to the scorer's table, notifying them that a goal was scored.
High above the ice in the Mellon Arena press box, Keith Schreiber sprang into action. To those with a keen eye, it appeared Sidney Crosby re-directed the puck into the net. Schreiber's job as an NHL off-ice official and the game's official scorer is to determine who gets credited for the goal, and any assists.

"When there's a goal, the referee's only job is to determine that a goal has been scored," said Phil Spano, another NHL off-ice official at Mellon Arena. "At that point, Keith and I will consult and look at it. I'm only lending support, though. It's Keith's job to make the decision as the official scorer."

Immediately after the puck went into the net, they both tried to determine if Crosby had deflected the puck or not. First, they checked a monitor near their seats that broadcast the game feed, but deemed it inconclusive. The game doesn't stop for them to make a judgment, so in the interest of time an unassisted goal was awarded to Malkin until a conclusive result was found.

They alerted the arena replay booth to cue a video of the goal so that they could review it during the next commercial break. Schreiber saw the play from several different angles, all in high definition. After extensive examination, Schreiber concluded that Crosby had redirected the shot. Thus, Crosby was credited with the goal and Malkin was given an assist.
Off-ice officials have some of the most important roles at every game, yet may be overlooked by the average fan. There are 15 off-ice officials working behind the scenes at every NHL game, in every city, in every arena. The crew consists of 2 goal judges, a game time-keeper, a penalty time-keeper, 2 penalty box attendants, a commercial coordinator, the official scorer, 5 scoring staffers, a video replay judge and a spotter.

The scoring staff uses 5 laptop computers in the press box to track everything from goals, assists and shots, to giveaways, takeaways, plus-minus rating and even the amount of time taken between faceoffs.

"With the systems that we have, we produce real-time stats," said Spano, who has been working as an off-ice official for over 20 years. "We can monitor any stat at any given time during a game. We track everything and enter it into the system. So if anyone pulls the information in the middle of the game, they will have every up-to-date stat."

The system is known as the Hockey Information and Tracking System, or HITS. Spano is the manager of HITS and oversees the staff as they update the information during the game. The stats are available to coaches, players and fans, who can access them at

"We can track almost everything," Spano said. "If you want to know how many shots a player has on the power play, we have it. If you want to know the amount of ice time that a defenseman has in the second period, we have it."

Two of the laptops are used to update "stats entry," which are shots, blocked shots, missed shots, faceoffs, takeaways, giveaways, hits, penalties, plus-minus and time between faceoffs. Two of the laptops are designated to track individual player ice time, one for each team. The fifth computer is a backup. All the laptops operate the same functions and can be interchanged.

One of the stats operators is Jim Gricar, who is entering his 26th season as an off-ice official. Gricar has been involved in Penguins operations since the team entered the NHL. He started in 1967 working in stats as well as game films, when the footage was all black and white. In 1981, he joined the off-ice officials.

"I've been here since the beginning," Gricar said. "I've been here as long as Mellon Arena has been around."

The crew, which arrives 2 hours before puck drop, enjoys some playful banter before the game and during breaks in action. But during play, they are all business. They work together as a cohesive unit and the group's camaraderie is visible.

"I think we have the best crew in the league," Spano said. "I don't know the other crews, and not to take anything away from them, but every guy (on Pittsburgh's crew) has worked in this building for a long time. We all have each other's backs and we work together as a team."

They have to work together because it's impossible for a single person to track everything by himself. With the fast-paced action, these guys are updating constantly. They hardly have a chance to catch their breath before the puck is dropped again.

Spano stands behind his staff and calls information to them during the game. He notes the player uniform numbers followed by the stat update -- "Giveaway 3; 21 white hit on 10 black; 60 blocked shot!"
"I don't know the other crews, and not to take anything away from them, but every guy (on Pittsburgh's crew) has worked in this building for a long time. We all have each other's backs and we work together as a team." -- Phil Spano
While Spano shouts the information, his team updates the stats on their computers. One member of the staff shouts: "That's a hit. I have to give him a hit there. He impeded (the player's) progress, agreed?"
During a brief break in action, the monitor replays the sequence for the crew, and Spano agrees that, by definition, a hit should be credited to the particular player. Every single minute detail is double-, triple- and even quadruple-checked.

"The most important thing in this business is to get the call right," Spano said. "We're more concerned with being accurate than quick. We want to make sure that at the end of the night, that everything this is right."

There have been occasions where it seemed those nights might not ever end. For instance, the entire crew stayed until 2:30 a.m. during the Penguins' five-overtime playoff game against the Philadelphia Flyers on May 4, 2000.

"That was a long evening," Gricar said. "I didn't even go to work the next day."

By work, Gricar was referring to his job as a chemist in the polyurethane division for the Bayer company. Gricar, like all the other off-ice officials, has a full-time job during the day. The off-ice officials are only part-time game-night workers. Their love for hockey keeps them coming back season after season.

Gricar, Schreiber and Spano have worked together for over 20 years and have seen the stat-tracking system evolve over the years. The home team always has been responsible for the game's stats; however, the early incarnation of stat keeping was all handwritten and only tracked goals, assists, shots and penalties.
Issues arose with that system due to legibility and, in some cases, favoritism toward the home team. The NHL introduced a computerized stat-tracking system in the 1980s, known as Real Time Scoring System (RTSS). The RTSS system eventually morphed into HITS.

"There were many problems with the old system," Spano said. "If the official scorer had poor penmanship, then the stats could be illegible. And they only tracked a limited amount of stat information. The HITS system created a uniform stat system that is quick, accessible, versatile and user-friendly."

The technology has revolutionized how stats are tracked and even used. Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson uses a laptop on the bench during games. He taps into the HITS system to keep track of things like ice time and faceoffs during the course of games.

With the continuing tech movement, the NHL may see more and more coaches relying on real-time stats during games. The Penguins are lucky to have a veteran off-ice crew that keeps things accurate.

"We have a great relationship with the NHL club, with the team, management, the coaching staff," Spano said. "We built that relationship by working with the staff and not just by telling them that this is the way it is. We're also an experienced crew and I think we've earned the respect of the organization."

Sam Kasan is the editor/online content for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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