Goals are up; the action is quicker and the league’s attendance is soaring.
And the man who oversees the game’s transition into a wide-open, more-exciting exhibition of speed and skills lives right here in Western Pennsylvania.
Stephen Walkom, a Moon Township resident, was named the NHL’s Senior Vice President/Director of Officiating in August and helped oversee the formation of the “new” NHL.
“My job, in a nutshell, is to oversee the integrity of the game. I have a whole department and staff that assists me in doing that. There are people in the field, officiating managers, a whole office staff and whole video department, along with 67 full-time officials and 10 full-time minor league guys,” Walkom said. “Just like a team, we have scouts out there looking for new talent. We’re trying to build a system to recruit and develop good officials so we can look after league’s officiating needs for years to come.
“My job is to coordinate that. I look at the present and make sure we’re implementing the many changes given to us and look to future for the future needs of the business,” he continued. “I try to get that message out there. I have the privilege to deal with on-ice officials on a daily basis and coaches and GMs in league who have specific questions relative to the game.”
A labor dispute wiped out the entire 2004-05 NHL schedule. When the league returned this season, it was determined to not only have revamped off-ice structure, but also the on-ice approach. Therefore, the league enhanced enforcement of its rules to create more of a free-flowing game.
The results have been overwhelmingly positive.
“I think the league has given the fans what they want. We’ve allowed the real skilled players to have ability go out and perform at the highest level,” Walkom said. “I am excited for the sport. I think it will draw back the fans who maybe watch only the playoffs. Now, if you tune in any night, you can get a really good hockey game.”
Establishing a new on-ice identity was difficult for both players and officials. Changing the way the game has been played and officiated for many years is an ongoing process.
“It’s a huge task we’ve taken on. I ask [people] to go to a game and then watch a pee-wee game and see the amount of hooking and holding coached in at a young age,” Walkom said. “I am hoping the NHL [sets an example for] all the other leagues in world look to and use as a model. If we can at least present a product that has that lure to it of being the best in the world, played in the best way in the world and played under the best rules in the world, then we’ll truly have a game poised for growth.”
Over the years, the NHL’s players and coaches devised ways to slow down quicker and more-skilled opponents. This, in turn, drastically reduced offense and made the once-common 100-point scorer nearly extinct.
“Maybe cheating to win is a strong phrase, but bending the rules to get a competitive advantage is very much a part of sport,” Walkom said.
As an NHL referee for 15 years, Walkom had a first-hand view of how the game changed in the last decade. He officiated more than 600 regular-season games, 84 Stanley Cup playoff games, the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, the 2004 World Cup of Hockey and two Stanley Cup Finals.
“I pretty much have the same perspective I had on the ice. I view the games objectively. I don’t look for a winner or a loser. I view the game from the aspect of upholding the integrity of the game and how our guys apply the NHL standard night in and night out,” Walkom said. “That’s been big for me. If we all work to the same standard we should be more consistent as a league.
“We basically came to realize that this year, unlike any other year, we were going to work to the NHL standard and the players were going to play to the NHL standard. We wouldn’t consciously deviate from that standard night in and night out,” he continued. “It’s a huge change, but our guys know I will support them and back them up any way I can if they follow league’s lead in that regard. This whole thing isn’t about a team or a player or a coach or a GM. It’s all about the game.”
While the NHL tweaked some of its rules, the biggest difference is in how strict the established rules are enforced this season.
Walkom monitors the progress of his officials and rules enforcement on a nightly basis. When he’s not visiting NHL arenas or in his office in Toronto, he’s at home in front of the TV.
“I have an office in Toronto and a home office here. My work is everywhere in the league really. I am not in one specific place. I don’t travel as much as I did when I refereed, but I do travel,” he said. “I don’t have a typical night. We have a business to run, so it runs during the day. [At night,] I have things set up so I can [record] a number of games [on TV] and can break down some things for our guys in the field who are working.
“I love watching hockey anyway. I’d watch it if I didn’t have this job. I guess, in a weird way, they pay me to watch hockey, which isn’t a bad thing.”
Walkom is happy with what he sees at NHL rinks and on TV.
“I am pleased with the collective effort our group has shown thus far,” he said. “I think our guys are getting better at calling hooks and holds and tugs and pulls and allowing body checks. I think earlier in the year, we overreacted to body checks. We’re getting better at minimizing overreactions.
“Our guys make mistakes; they are human beings, but it’s not that they don’t work hard to try to call the perfect game,” he continued. “I have good guys working for me. They all work hard and sweat for a living. I understand where they are. They don’t attempt to fail. They are genuine ambassadors of the game. It’s a privilege to be their superior.”
Even though noticeable progress has already been made, Walkom realizes his work, and the work of his officials, won’t end anytime soon.
“Our mission at the start of the year, and it is a huge year, was to try to undo the hockey culture – all the unwritten rules of the game. All of those things that have plagued game and allowed these defensive tactics,” he said. “Everyone wonders when [the rules enforcement is] going to fall off. I don’t care about statistics [measuring the amount of penalties called per game]. I care about, in each game, if players can go all the way up the ice without being hooked and held. If we don’t have to call penalties – great. If we have to call penalties to enforce it, we will.
“What I recognize from being in the game is that our real work is ahead. Each day, each week, we work to prepare for tomorrow. I look at the season and playoffs as a mission. We’re a long way into the season, but our goal is to have the same standard of enforcement from the start [of the year] to the end of the playoffs. We have much work to do to complete our mission.”
Meanwhile, Walkom manages to find time to spend time with wife, Annie, and their three children, Stephanie (11), Brendan (7) and Brianna (2). He even finds time to coach local youth hockey.
“Hockey is a basically a labor of love. I loved officiating and enjoyed being the coach and manager of officials. I am in hockey every day. How could you not love being involved in the game?” he said. “I am lucky because I am home a little more [with this job] and can coach my kids little more. It’s been great. We have a little rink in the backyard. The kids can go out and hack around a little bit.”
A native of North Bay, Ontario, Walkom and his family settled in Pittsburgh nine years ago.
“When I was a referee, I could live anywhere and I picked Pittsburgh,” he said. “It was very central for the league and still is. It really is a family-oriented community. The public school system is very good. Healthcare is very good. The airport is good for flying in and out of. It’s ideal.
“If we could just get a little more winter it’d be really good.”
Pittsburgh is a popular home base for NHL officials. Linesman Derek Amell lives close to Walkom in Moon Township.
“We just try to keep it as a secret. We don’t want too many guys here,” Walkom said with a laugh. “Who wouldn’t like Pittsburgh? We’re lucky in Pittsburgh – we have all amenities of a big city and we’re really just a lot of little towns.
“I have nothing but good things to say about Pittsburgh. If the weather was a little colder, it would be perfect. A littler more sun wouldn’t hurt, too,” he continued. “It’s a really good hockey town. It has a really good base of hockey at all levels. I’d like to see them work together a little better, though.”
Walkom doesn’t root for any NHL team. However, since the Penguins are his “hometown” team, he follows the organization closely and hopes it can secure a new arena so the franchise remains in Pittsburgh.
“You hope good things for any organization that is going through duress for new buildings. I have seen so many new buildings come in to so many cities and so many good things happen,” he said. “To me, Pittsburgh is an ideal city to have a new arena. Not only does a pro team need it, but I think the city just needs it. Maybe for selfish reasons, I really hope [the elected officials] get behind the organization and help them in their cause for a new arena.”