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Off-ice ref sees pros, cons to different location

by Dan Rosen
TORONTO -- At times, Scott Ferguson will find himself out of position on a play when he's officiating games in the Ontario Hockey League. But off the ice completely? Nah, never that drastic.

Well, not until Thursday.

Ferguson had to come to an NHL-run event to get his first taste of being an off-ice official while still being challenged with all the tasks that come with being on the ice. It sounds strange, but a few radical changes are being tested at the 2010 NHL Research, Development and Orientation Camp Fueled By G Series -- and Ferguson was the guinea pig for one of them Thursday morning.

Instead of wearing skates and being on the ice like his partner, Dave Lewis, Ferguson was in sneakers and standing on an elevated platform looking over the glass by one of the blue lines on the bleacher side of the rink. The NHL was testing this unique method with the idea that stationing one referee off the ice might reduce traffic on the ice while also providing a better vantage point to spot infractions.

Ferguson didn't completely reject the idea after officiating an entire game from his tennis chair umpire-like perch.

"I think there is good and bad to it," he said. "It's good in regard that when (Lewis) is down at the net I can see what is going on behind him. Say we have a scrum at the net and the D-men come in, I can always communicate with him. I can watch the changes on the bench so if we have a too-many-men-on-the-ice situation, I can see that. But you don't feel the game. You don't feel when the intensity starts to rise and that was the tough part about it."

He also said he didn't think he had a better look at the game from his elevated post, and he did not see the far end of the ice well.

"Certain angles you could see better, like, say, along the boards. But I would say definitely you could not see better as being on the ice," Ferguson said.

However, Ferguson was able to make five penalty calls, and he said after one period he was able to find his bearings and establish a mode of communication with Lewis.

"I could know he was there; he was communicating with me the entire time throughout the game," Lewis said. "Not even just on penalties, but situations like a player coming out of the box or something going on in front of the net. He just let me know what was going on."

"You're more like a fan, but you had to react to it and once you started to react it came a lot easier," said Ferguson. "Then Dave and I got our communication down. If something happened, he would say, 'Put your hand up,' and then he'd react to it and call it. It worked out pretty well."

Lewis, though, said it was difficult for him because he had no way of communicating verbally with Ferguson.

"We didn't have communication back and forth," he said. "I wasn't able to talk to him, and if it was to be implemented I think we would have to have communication back and forth so I can talk to him while he was talking to me."

The moderate success of the project didn't take away from the peculiarity of having an official hovering over the ice instead of skating on it.

"It's like big brother watching," coach Ken Hitchcock said.

When asked how he would be able to yell at Ferguson, Hitchcock cracked up.

"Well, you wouldn't know who to yell at because they could just shift the blame and when the guy is 85 feet away you're not going to get barking at him," Hitchcock said. "You'll start yelling at him and he'll start yelling at you and it's like two guys trying to yell at each other over the fence. But it's an interesting concept."

Interesting because, as Hitchcock noted, having Ferguson in his elevated position meant the players couldn't get away with anything cheap behind the play.

"He can see everything, and when you're up that high the game is slower, so I think the players mentally are more careful," Hitchcock said. "A couple of guys commented that you're not going to get away with anything. It's an interesting concept because if you're talking about cleaning up the dirty work behind the play, you're not going to get away with anything with a guy standing there."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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