Periodic musings from the desk of...
Not ready for prime time refs, my Team USA, more
Posted: Monday February 11, 2008 12:45PM; Updated: Monday February 11, 2008 1:58PM
So NBC, the network that carries the NHL in the United States that you don't need a Sherpa to find, is Peacock proud of its new flex scheduling. That's a fabulous way to spin that it has dropped regional games -- that were siphoning off the bottom line -- in favor of a single national game.
The question, forgetting any motives for NBC's munificence, is: if the network can have the best game, can the NHL have "flex" referees.
Chris Rooney and Dan O'Halloran were entrusted with the Ducks - Red Wings game in Detroit on Sunday, a match that the network homed in on after immediately bailing on Penguins - Flyers as soon as Sidney Crosby sprained his ankle. Good call.
NBC got everything it wanted: a stirring 3-2 Ducks win in a game redolent of the playoffs in front of a full house, finally, at Joe Louis Arena. Detroit, which had been laying in the weeds during the week, dropping games to lowly Los Angeles and losing in overtime in Toronto in obvious anticipation of the Anaheim match, came hard at the Ducks. Pugnacious Anaheim pushed back as always (even though Ducks fighter George Parros must be more judicious in picking his time to scrap because fights can kill momentum as much as they can spark it.)
Unfortunately, Rooney and O'Halloran didn't seem up to the challenge. O'Halloran waved off Nick Lidstrom's apparent tying goal with 41 seconds left because teammate Tomas Holmstrom supposedly interfered with Ducks goalie J-S Gigučre. Now, Holmstrom was born with a GPS in his cerebellum. He almost never puts his skates in the blue paint of the crease. Nor did he do it this time. According to replays, he didn't jostle the goalie, either.
O'Halloran blew the whistle and made one of those "incidental contact" decisions, the single most vexing option in the rulebook. (Note to NHL: If there is truly goalie interference, call the two-minute minor and disallow the goal. If it isn't, then let them play. The "incidental contact" rule is absurd.)
In a league that is contemplating all kinds of out-of-the-box changes to increase goal scoring, a ref took away what appeared to be a perfectly legitimate goal -- two, in fact, counting the one that would have been scored in overtime or awarded for the penalty shootout.
There were less egregious examples of misjudgment -- Anaheim's Chris Kunitz escaped punishment for punching Mikael Samuelsson -- but NBC analysts Ed Olczyk and Pierre McGuire, neither of whom are known as ref bashers, were tough on the striped shirts. In a post-game email to On the Fly, Stephen Walkom, director of officiating, wrote that both O'Halloran and Rooney "have worked well" this season and that the call on Lidstrom's disallowed goal "made in real time demonstrated real focus and was truly an exceptional call."
Everyone should have a boss as loyal as Walkom.
Anyway, while Rooney and O'Halloran might be top tier officials this season, the NHL should settle for nothing less than its top two referees for the game of the week. That, of course, doesn't preclude an officiating misstep -- or "an exceptional call" if you believe the NHL gospel -- but it gives NBC and the league their best chance of the refs not becoming part of the national story.
Two years from Tuesday, the 2010 Olympics start in Vancouver. This probably will be the last Games, at least for the foreseeable future, in which NHL players participate. The 2014 Olympics are set for Sochi, Russia, which isn't the NHL's favorite country at the moment. The International Ice Hockey Federation doesn't want the NHL to cherry pick Olympics to which it will deign to send players -- in for a penny, in for a Euro -- but Russia's intransigence about the transfer agreement has soured the NHL, which is in no mood currently to help a Russian showcase event.
Hockey's geopolitical landscape could undergo a seismic shift, but time zones won't change. Unless Commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners can see a more tangible benefit for taking the league on a nearly three-week February hiatus to accommodate matches that won't be shown in prime time, the NHL likely will take a pass. So until (or if) the World Cup tournaments resume, the 2010 Games will be the last best-on-best event for a while, a pity given the caliber of Olympic play since the NHL began sending its pros in 1998. (In the three Olympics with NHL participation, six different countries -- Czech Republic, Russia, Canada, U.S., Sweden and Finland -- have reached the final.)
Not that non-NHLers can't produce indelible moments -- Peter Forsberg's shootout goal for Sweden in 1994 was commemorated on a postage stamp -- but without the NHL, the 2014 tournament would basically be Rochester vs. Iowa. Or Omsk vs. Kazan, if that new Russian league really takes off.
Anyway, the lesson learned in 2006 is that fresh legs are a necessity in a short tournament. Canada tried to win the 2004 World Cup for a second time in Turin and bombed out. The Americans, caught in a generational crunch, probably had too many holdovers from its 1996 World Cup win and limped home. So, with numerous Canadian media outlets already roughing out a team for Vancouver in giddy anticipation, On the Fly presents a working model of the 23-man Team USA roster, plus three-man taxi squad, with comments.
GOALIES: Rick DiPietro, Ryan Miller, Tim Thomas
Comment -- DiPietro is capable of seizing moments, but was ordinary in 2006. Miller, who often has been overlooked because of DiPietro's conspicuous skills, could be the starter.
DEFENSEMEN: Mathieu Schneider, Brian Rafalski, Mike Komisarek, Ryan Suter, Paul Martin, Ryan Whitney, Jack Johnson, Erik Johnson, Jordan Leopold.
Comment -- This blueline group assumes that Jack Johnson and Erik Johnson, who has had a spotty rookie year, continue to develop. If Leopold is healthy, he should be part of the team. Also watch for Matt Niskanen. A year ago, John-Michael Liles would have been a lock, but he's stumbled this season as he approaches unrestricted free agency in Colorado. He could rebound, though.
FORWARDS: Patrick Kane, Scott Gomez, Phil Kessel, Paul Gaustad, Erik Cole, Dustin Brown, Brian Rolston, Zach Parise, Brian Gionta, Chris Drury, Peter Mueller, Mike Grier, David Booth, Ryan Malone.
Comment -- Start with Team USA's fourth line -- Gaustad centering Grier and Booth. Drury shifts to left wing. Veteran Mike Knuble, speedy David Legwand and Chris Higgins are on the bubble.
A room with a view
New Jersey coach Brent Sutter shifted the seating arrangement in the Devils dressing room last week, mixing some defensemen in with the forwards. This is an old coaching gambit, a way of shaking things up and getting the players' attention.
When Mike Keenan was coaching the New York Rangers, he would move anyone he thought needed a healthy dose of professionalism by osmosis between the lockers of Mark Messier and Kevin Lowe. There are many nuances in the geography and geo-politics of NHL dressing rooms, as opposed to, say, baseball clubhouses or NFL locker rooms. The captain, for example, generally sits in a central location so he can see everyone in the room. But the most important distinction, the one that defines hockey, is this: the stalls (not chairs) all look outward, towards teammates, while in baseball the chairs are turned towards the contents of the lockers themselves.