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.)
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.
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