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Big Murph Is Watching
March 20, 2006
There's a video goal judge at each NHL game, but the final word on questionable scores comes from the league's nerve center in Toronto. Every night Mike Murphy and his crew become an all-seeing eye in the sky. Here's an inside look at how it works
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March 20, 2006

Big Murph Is Watching

There's a video goal judge at each NHL game, but the final word on questionable scores comes from the league's nerve center in Toronto. Every night Mike Murphy and his crew become an all-seeing eye in the sky. Here's an inside look at how it works

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It is 8:44 p.m., and I am watching six men look for a puck. They stare anxiously at plasma screens and computer monitors and speak in tense, clipped sentences, as if a toddler and not a vulcanized rubber disk, 3.0 inches in diameter, had gone missing. The search commenced after the Senators' Peter Schaefer was cross-checked into the Washington goal and the net swayed on its pegs and the puck did or didn't trickle across the goal line. This series of events naturally coincided with the precise moment that one of the 10 TiVo machines chose to malfunction.

This is the video room in NHL headquarters in Toronto. The business of hockey might occur in the main offices on the Avenue of the Americas in New York City, but the central nervous system of the sport is here, in a windowless, 36-by-12-foot room with spartan workstations, muted track lighting and walls that, in the reflected glow of the screens, appear to be the color of neglected teeth. It's called the "war room" by almost everybody except those who work there. "I mean, this isn't war," says Damian Echevarrieta, the NHL's video director. "This is just hockey."

No, this is not life or death, just goal or no goal, which could mean merely a win or a loss, a Stanley Cup playoff berth or an early summer, millions in revenue or nothing. Nominally the validity of a goal rests with video goal judges, men who sit secluded in booths that ring the upper reaches of NHL arenas. But when video review in Toronto was introduced during the 2002--03 season--the NHL having decided that this committee of rule-book scholars in Toronto, hockey and computer literate, was more dependable than a single set of eyes--the judges became glorified telephone operators. Now if there is a scintilla of doubt whether, or how, a puck crosses the line, the judges must call Toronto immediately. (If they don't, well, two have been suspended for 10 games each this season for not following procedures.) When TV announcers say, "They're going upstairs" for a review, they are going way upstairs, to the 11th floor of the Air Canada Centre office tower.

In a sweater and slacks I am seriously overdressed. When the NHL changed its rules to eliminate ties for 2005--06, the ban apparently applied to the video center as well. Mike Murphy, the NHL senior vice president of hockey operations who organizes the nightly searches for lost pucks, is wearing a black golf shirt. His boss, executive VP of hockey operations Colin Campbell, is wearing jeans. The rest of the staffers look as casual as if they were in their own living rooms, though it's doubtful their homes have dual $15,000 plasmas over the mantel.

There also is a certain informality of speech, reflected in the liberal use of nicknames. Murphy is Murph, video reviewer Tim Campbell (no relation to Colin) is Bone, a moniker which was hung on him by the late Roger Neilson at a hockey camp years ago. Kris King, the former NHL tough guy who's now a hockey-operations consultant, is Kinger, and Echevarrieta is simply D.

He might not have the on-ice hockey experience of a Murphy or a King--having played on a Division III team at St. John's in Queens, N.Y.--but there is a certain deference towards Echevarrieta because of his ability with the gadgets. He started as an intern with the New York Rangers and wound up breaking down video for Colin Campbell when Campbell coached New York. When Campbell moved into NHL hockey operations in 1998, he brought along Echevarrieta, who now watches an average of two hockey broadcasts a night, seven days a week, 29 weeks a year. "You know the commercials that are pretty funny when you see them in October?" he says. "By April, they're just not that funny."

the nhl doesn't get good TV ratings, but it does get video review better than any other league. The recent NFL playoffs were a reminder of how amateurish the most muscular of leagues looks when it wrestles with technology. (Doesn't a referee staring into a machine with a clock running look like he's at a circa 1957 Times Square peep show?) While the NFL slogs through a swamp littered with innumerable challenge possibilities, including whether feet were inbounds, a knee touched the ground or the ball penetrated an invisible plane along the goal line, NHL's Big Brother sticks to goals.

As outlined in rule 93, only six situations are subject to review, including a puck crossing the line, a puck directed into the goal by a hand or foot, or a puck struck by a high stick. There are admirable limits and a notable efficiency, something that worked against the league in a controversial play during Game 6 of the 2004 final, when it appeared that Calgary's Martin G�linas had nudged the puck past Tampa Bay goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. The refs ruled it was not a goal, and a review was quickly called for. In the NHL system, when a no-goal ruling is questioned, Murphy and his team have until the next stoppage of play to make a correction. (When there's a question about a goal that's called good, the ensuing face-off is delayed until the review can be completed.) Working on a video system that had been set up in the arena, Murphy was able to confirm in 47 seconds that the refs were correct. "The problem was, we were too quick," says Colin Campbell. "People thought we didn't even check it. We had it. But if we'd made a big show of reviewing it, it would have been better for us."

The NHL, of course, is far from perfect, and some high-profile blunders paved the way for the video room. The league was embarrassed in the 2000 playoffs when Philadelphia's John LeClair blasted a shot through the side of the net, a breach that the supervisor at the rink that day, John D'Amico, didn't detect until play had long since resumed.

Even now the system isn't foolproof--and not merely because it depends on the cameramen and TV directors working each game. To underscore how difficult the job can be, Murphy, the final arbiter on most nights, brought a clip of a disputed goal by Oilers winger Ales Hemsky to the general managers' meeting near Las Vegas last month. Twelve of the G.M.'s thought it should have been a goal and 18 didn't. (Murphy says it was a good goal.)

Occasionally the NHL even boots an easy one. On Jan. 21 in Calgary, Flames defenseman Robyn Regehr kicked in a puck against the Sabres. The violation was spotted in Toronto, but by the time the goal judge in the Saddledome was contacted, play had resumed and thus the goal stood. (Later in the game Campbell called Buffalo general manager Darcy Regier to apologize. The video goal judge in Calgary was subsequently suspended for not calling Toronto.) Almost three quarters of the way through the schedule Murphy counts only three other gaffes that have slithered through the system, human imperfections in a game rife with them.

fortified with pizzas, salad and bottles of water, Murphy and his staff assume their places before the plasma screens or LCD computer monitors. It is shortly after 7 p.m., a few minutes before the puck drops in the first of 10 games this night in early March. Each man is assigned a game or two while Murphy, who covers Vancouver- Nashville, coordinates. The principal task is to verify goals from the various feeds--this night, only one of the overhead cameras in the Staples Center is functioning--but they also log every penalty, note minutiae such as how a linesman drops the puck on face-offs, and comment on the refereeing. If a call strikes them as particularly egregious, or insightful, they will highlight it and e-mail a clip to Stephen Walkom, the director of officiating, who will check it out and perhaps send it on to his officials. For 17 minutes between 9:08 and 9:25 p.m., nine games are in progress. On the two picture-in-picture plasmas, Murphy keeps an eye on a jigsaw puzzle of hockey. A novice can follow one, two games. Murphy, an old hand, swallows multiple games whole on two screens.

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