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Putting the Skill Back Into the N.H.L.


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#1 Rock

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Posted 22 December 2005 - 09:50 AM

December 20, 2005
Putting the Skill Back Into the N.H.L.
By LORNE MANLY
http://www.nytimes.c...agewanted=print
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Steve Payne for The New York Times
Stephen Walkom, right, and Colin Campbell, both N.H.L. vice presidents, monitoring games in the league's operations center in Toronto.



TORONTO - Hang around with Stephen Walkom, the National Hockey League's recently installed director of officiating, and the exhortation "stick to the standard" is bound to issue from his lips.

Whether watching games in the league's monitor-crammed operations center here or conversing with the officials under his command, Walkom returns again and again to his new mantra. Players, coaches and, yes, referees and linesmen will be held accountable to the standard, the updated rules of engagement between warring teams on the ice.

The clutching and grabbing and other obstruction techniques that players employed, that referees ignored and that turned hockey games into little more than rugby scrums will no longer be tolerated. This, Walkom decrees at every turn, is the new N.H.L., in which skilled players will be given room to display their talents and fans will be able to watch hockey as it was intended to be played.

The N.H.L.'s fervent hopes for revitalization after a season canceled because of a labor impasse rest, in large part, on how well Walkom succeeds in his quest. It will not be easy. He will have to overcome years of borderline thuggish behavior being ignored, skepticism stemming from previous crackdowns on obstruction that quickly fizzled, and criticisms that the heart is being torn out of the game.

But Walkom, complete with some decidedly unorthodox managerial ideas in a league that has never been mistaken for being progressive, remains undeterred.

"I don't know if we can unravel 20 years of coaching in three months," Walkom said. "I keep saying to everyone and anyone, this isn't about a team, this isn't about a coach, this isn't even about a style of play. This is about the N.H.L. standard. And that's what you have to work to."

Walkom, a boyish-looking 42-year-old with a deliberate manner of speaking and an unexpected tendency to quote Aristotle and other deep thinkers in his memos, did not have a burning desire to become a referee as a youngster growing up in North Bay, Ontario. He was just another hockey-playing boy who idolized Bobby Orr. When the town built an indoor rink, his father got him and his brother part-time jobs as timekeepers. Refereeing, however, paid closer to $1 a game, rather than the 50 cents he was receiving.

Through his high school and university years, he served as a referee whenever he could. Still, it was not a career path. After graduating from Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, with a degree in commerce, he worked at Procter & Gamble. He then set up his own company, which manufactured automobile jacks.

But the N.H.L. had been scouting him as an official and offered him a job in the minors. He grabbed it, his love of hockey undiminished. Joining the N.H.L. officiating ranks in 1990, he quickly rose to the top tier of referees, cultivating a reputation for fairness and an uncommon communicativeness. For five years, he served as president of the officials union.


Becoming the Enforcer


After spending the lost season of hockey at home with his wife and three children in Moon Township, Pa., where he coached youth hockey and taught power skating, Walkom was itching to get back on the ice. But Colin Campbell, the league's executive vice president and director of hockey operations, and N.H.L. Commissioner Gary Bettman had different ideas.

Over the summer, they approached Walkom about replacing Andy van Hellemond, who stepped down in July 2004. After his resignation, two Canadian newspapers reported that Van Hellemond had approached the officials he oversaw for loans over the years, creating a possible conflict of interest in the way he doled out postseason assignments. (Van Hellemond has denied any favoritism.)

In August, Walkom became senior vice president and director of officiating and took over a fractured group of officials, battered by years of seemingly arbitrary firings and tough-love oversight. But much about the N.H.L. was broken before the lockout. Attendance was stagnating; television ratings were flagging, particularly in the United States; and, at least according to the league, most of the teams were losing money and some were in danger of extinction.

The economic travails of the N.H.L. dominated the headlines during the lockout, but behind the scenes, the teams, league executives, the players and the officials tabled their sometimes nasty rhetoric and began to scrutinize the game's flaws.

"Unskilled players were using unskilled acts to contain skilled players," said Kerry Fraser, who is the league's longest-serving referee; he officiated his first N.H.L. game in 1980. "And we allowed it to evolve."

Occasional league-ordered crackdowns on obstruction would peter out, a victim of an unwritten code that had governed the N.H.L. for decades: Officials' calls should not affect the outcome of the game.

When the league and the players finally settled their differences, the introduction of a salary cap was accompanied by a promise to undo years of stultifying precedent and make the game more entertaining. The size of the neutral zone was reduced, giving skilled offensive players more room to operate. Two-line passes were permitted. And games still tied after overtime were to be decided by a shootout.

Most important, the league pledged a zero-tolerance policy on interference, hooking and holding. And this time, the players, general managers, league executives and the officials vowed the changes would last.

A major re-education campaign, however, was needed to steer the league in the intended direction. It began in September near Buffalo, in Fort Erie, Ontario, at training camp for officials.

For the first two days, Walkom and his deputies did not teach a lick about the new rules. Instead, Walkom brought in a company that specializes in team-building exercises.

Officials were given a video rulebook, so they could better visualize what was legal and what was not. Then, they played hockey, under the real rulebook. Plenty of penalties were called. "We all hook and hold, because we all cheat to win; who doesn't?" Walkom said, laughing. "It's all a matter of getting caught."

Walkom has instituted a number of other changes. After each game, the referees receive a DVD of the action to use for self-critiques. His team also compiles DVD's of the best legal hits, or examples of what is and is not allowed when it comes to jostling in front of the net or along the boards.

Officiating managers file game observations to Walkom each night, monitoring how the officials are living up to the new standard. And in the operations room in Toronto, Walkom, Campbell or others watch every game, looking for relapses.

Twice a week, Walkom dispatches a memo to his officials: he offers tips and rule questions on Mondays and mission statements and encouragement on Fridays. Monday's memos also come with quotations from, say, Aristotle: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit."

Walkom said, "The mental psyche of officials is important."

"As an official, you're going to fall off track," he added. "I just want to minimize the time that you fall off track."

The officials appear to have accepted Walkom's managerial approach. "It's very proactive," said Craig Spada, a referee in his third year in the N.H.L.

The ambitious changes to the league are having their intended effect. Games are closer, and come-from-behind victories are no longer an endangered species. [Scoring was up more than a goal a game through Sunday, compared with the corresponding period in the 2003-4 season. Attendance has jumped nearly 4 percentage points, to 91 percent of capacity.] And over all, television ratings are up substantially.

Nonetheless, the new N.H.L. has its critics. Some, like Harry Sinden, the longtime president of the Boston Bruins, have expressed concerns that the proliferation of penalties has slowed down hockey as much as obstruction calls once did. [This season, 13.6 penalties have been called a game, three more per game than at this point in 2003-4.]

[The number of power-play chances has skyrocketed by more than 35 percent, fanning worries that special-teams play is overwhelming the rest of the game. And penalties per game have increased slightly since the end of October - despite expectations that once the players became acclimated to the new rules and got in shape the number of calls would dip.]


Handling Complaints


Some coaches and players have complained that the almighty standard is a fuzzy one. What was deemed legal in moving players out of the goalie's crease during one game, for example, would be called interference during another. Soon after one game in November, when the Chicago Blackhawks were whistled for eight penalties in a row, the team requested a meeting with Walkom.

"We were leading the league in penalties and leading the league in five-on-three's by a large margin," said Dale Tallon, the team's general manager and a player for 10 seasons. "It was either us or them."

Walkom spent more than an hour with the team answering questions and reiterating that the crackdown on obstruction would continue. "Steve was very calm, he was confident, he was fair and reasonable," Tallon said.

Bill Watters, a former executive with the Toronto Maple Leafs turned television and radio commentator, said that while he applauded the opening up of the neutral zone and the resulting pick-up in speed and offensive maneuverings, something integral was missing. "They have taken the physicality, and subsequently the fear, out of hockey," he said.

"You've got to be worried about being knocked to the ice," he added. Otherwise, he said, "it's a glorified game of pond hockey."

Brendan Shanahan, the Detroit Red Wings veteran forward who convened a gathering of N.H.L. constituents during the lockout to work on improving the game, disputed that assessment and said old-time hockey was returning as players and officials ascend the learning curve.

"I get frustrated during games sometimes, but I have to remind myself it's only been a few months," he said. "We're not there yet. But it's getting better."

Walkom said he recognized that referees might have been too gung-ho the first few months of the season, calling penalties where none existed. Officials are also being more watchful of players bull-rushing the net and bowling over goalies. And they are increasingly guarding against being hoodwinked by players learning to subvert the more strictly enforced rules.

But over all, Walkom remains unapologetic for the tough enforcement. Bumping and battling in front of the net and along the boards is still fine, as long as players don't tackle attacking players or punch them in the heads or otherwise manhandle them.

And nothing will knock him off repeating this message to the officials under his command: "The fact is, you know that if you continue on this course, if you continue on this mission, you're going to make history. You're going to change the game - for the good."

"That's something to be proud of," he added.
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#2 GA Devil

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Posted 22 December 2005 - 01:40 PM

I have to admit, the NHL officiating situation is a little better with Walkom at the helm instead of Van Hellemond.

Van Hellemond was as dismal at being the director of officiating as he was an official.
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Let the celebration begin in the Daneyko household!!!!

#3 Neutral Zone Trap

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Posted 23 December 2005 - 12:32 AM

December 20, 2005
Putting the Skill Back Into the N.H.L.
By LORNE MANLY
http://www.nytimes.c...agewanted=print
Posted Image
yes, referees and linesmen will be held accountable to the standard, the updated rules of engagement between warring teams on the ice.

Really??
I have yet to see a referee be "disciplined" for making a bad call.

The clutching and grabbing and other obstruction techniques that players employed, that referees ignored and that turned hockey games into little more than rugby scrums will no longer be tolerated. This, Walkom decrees at every turn, is the new N.H.L., in which skilled players will be given room to display their talents and fans will be able to watch hockey as it was intended to be played.

In other words, defencemen will be penalized for challenging forwards.

The N.H.L.'s fervent hopes for revitalization after a season canceled because of a labor impasse rest, in large part, on how well Walkom succeeds in his quest. It will not be easy. He will have to overcome years of borderline thuggish behavior being ignored, skepticism stemming from previous crackdowns on obstruction that quickly fizzled, and criticisms that the heart is being torn out of the game.

And yet, after twenty or more years of blatant diving, a blind eye is turn to diving?

But Walkom, complete with some decidedly unorthodox managerial ideas in a league that has never been mistaken for being progressive, remains undeterred.

"I don't know if we can unravel 20 years of coaching in three months," Walkom said. "I keep saying to everyone and anyone, this isn't about a team, this isn't about a coach, this isn't even about a style of play. This is about the N.H.L. standard. And that's what you have to work to."

And you Mr Walkom are a lying sack of $hit, the rules are specifically against the New Jersey Devils and the defensive system they use, often called the Neutral Zone Trap.

Over the summer, they approached Walkom about replacing Andy van Hellemond, who stepped down in July 2004. After his resignation, two Canadian newspapers reported that Van Hellemond had approached the officials he oversaw for loans over the years, creating a possible conflict of interest in the way he doled out postseason assignments. (Van Hellemond has denied any favoritism.)

In August, Walkom became senior vice president and director of officiating and took over a fractured group of officials, battered by years of seemingly arbitrary firings and tough-love oversight. But much about the N.H.L. was broken before the lockout. Attendance was stagnating; television ratings were flagging, particularly in the United States; and, at least according to the league, most of the teams were losing money and some were in danger of extinction.

The economic travails of the N.H.L. dominated the headlines during the lockout, but behind the scenes, the teams, league executives, the players and the officials tabled their sometimes nasty rhetoric and began to scrutinize the game's flaws.

"Unskilled players were using unskilled acts to contain skilled players," said Kerry Fraser, who is the league's longest-serving referee; he officiated his first N.H.L. game in 1980. "And we allowed it to evolve."

Perhaps these "skilled" players weren't that skilled afterall, I wonder if these "skilled" players have ever heard of passing? instead of showboating by trying to skate past four players?

Occasional league-ordered crackdowns on obstruction would peter out, a victim of an unwritten code that had governed the N.H.L. for decades: Officials' calls should not affect the outcome of the game.

The size of the neutral zone was reduced, giving skilled offensive players more room to operate.

But playing skilled defensive hockey is penalized as "obstruction interference" ?

Most important, the league pledged a zero-tolerance policy on interference, hooking and holding. And this time, the players, general managers, league executives and the officials vowed the changes would last.

But why didn't they pledge "zero tolerance" to diving?

Officials were given a video rulebook, so they could better visualize what was legal and what was not. Then, they played hockey, under the real rulebook. Plenty of penalties were called. "We all hook and hold, because we all cheat to win; who doesn't?" Walkom said, laughing. "It's all a matter of getting caught."

I thought diving to get a power-play was cheating too? I wonder why that was left out?

Walkom has instituted a number of other changes. After each game, the referees receive a DVD of the action to use for self-critiques. His team also compiles DVD's of the best legal hits, or examples of what is and is not allowed when it comes to jostling in front of the net or along the boards.

In other words, defencemen defending their goalies crease are called for interference, but forwards can run the goalie, eg Hossa on Brodeur.

Officiating managers file game observations to Walkom each night, monitoring how the officials are living up to the new standard. And in the operations room in Toronto, Walkom, Campbell or others watch every game, looking for relapses.

So who looks for Walkom and Campbell making relapses?
Putting Campbell and walkom in charge was a "relapse' if you ask me.


Twice a week, Walkom dispatches a memo to his officials: he offers tips and rule questions on Mondays and mission statements and encouragement on Fridays. Monday's memos also come with quotations from, say, Aristotle: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit."

Here's a tip for Walkom and Campbell, go join Goodenow and get the hell out of hockey.

Walkom said, "The mental psyche of officials is important."

"As an official, you're going to fall off track," he added. "I just want to minimize the time that you fall off track."

The officials appear to have accepted Walkom's managerial approach. "It's very proactive," said Craig Spada, a referee in his third year in the N.H.L.

The ambitious changes to the league are having their intended effect. Games are closer, and come-from-behind victories are no longer an endangered species. [Scoring was up more than a goal a game through Sunday, compared with the corresponding period in the 2003-4 season. Attendance has jumped nearly 4 percentage points, to 91 percent of capacity.] And over all, television ratings are up substantially.

Nonetheless, the new N.H.L. has its critics. Some, like Harry Sinden, the longtime president of the Boston Bruins, have expressed concerns that the proliferation of penalties has slowed down hockey as much as obstruction calls once did. [This season, 13.6 penalties have been called a game, three more per game than at this point in 2003-4.]

[The number of power-play chances has skyrocketed by more than 35 percent, fanning worries that special-teams play is overwhelming the rest of the game. And penalties per game have increased slightly since the end of October - despite expectations that once the players became acclimated to the new rules and got in shape the number of calls would dip.]
Handling Complaints
Some coaches and players have complained that the almighty standard is a fuzzy one. What was deemed legal in moving players out of the goalie's crease during one game, for example, would be called interference during another. Soon after one game in November, when the Chicago Blackhawks were whistled for eight penalties in a row, the team requested a meeting with Walkom.

"We were leading the league in penalties and leading the league in five-on-three's by a large margin," said Dale Tallon, the team's general manager and a player for 10 seasons. "It was either us or them."

Walkom spent more than an hour with the team answering questions and reiterating that the crackdown on obstruction would continue. "Steve was very calm, he was confident, he was fair and reasonable," Tallon said.

Bill Watters, a former executive with the Toronto Maple Leafs turned television and radio commentator, said that while he applauded the opening up of the neutral zone and the resulting pick-up in speed and offensive maneuverings, something integral was missing. "They have taken the physicality, and subsequently the fear, out of hockey," he said.

"You've got to be worried about being knocked to the ice," he added. Otherwise, he said, "it's a glorified game of pond hockey."

That's exactly right, perhaps these forwards who are now all-of-a-sudden brave enough to go in the crease should wear Tutus, so the D-men know you'll get a penalty if you "touch" them.

Brendan Shanahan, the Detroit Red Wings veteran forward who convened a gathering of N.H.L. constituents during the lockout to work on improving the game, disputed that assessment and said old-time hockey was returning as players and officials ascend the learning curve.

"I get frustrated during games sometimes, but I have to remind myself it's only been a few months," he said. "We're not there yet. But it's getting better."

Wait until you get called for breathing on a player and that team gets a power-play and scores, knocking the Red Wings out of the play-offs, will it be "getting better" then Brendan?

Walkom said he recognized that referees might have been too gung-ho the first few months of the season, calling penalties where none existed. Officials are also being more watchful of players bull-rushing the net and bowling over goalies. And they are increasingly guarding against being hoodwinked by players learning to subvert the more strictly enforced rules.

I have yet to see players called for running the goalie, the penalty for running the goalie does not exist in the None Hitting (playing defense is illegal) League.

But over all, Walkom remains unapologetic for the tough enforcement. Bumping and battling in front of the net and along the boards is still fine, as long as players don't tackle attacking players or punch them in the heads or otherwise manhandle them.

But it's ok for forwards to tackle, manhandle, crosscheck and punch in the heads of defencemen and goalies?

And nothing will knock him off repeating this message to the officials under his command: "The fact is, you know that if you continue on this course, if you continue on this mission, you're going to make history. You're going to change the game - for the good."

You will make the game a no-contact sport, perhaps you should "officiate" ice-dancing Mr Walkom, or better yet, make playing defense a penalty, Ooops, my bad, you've already done that.

"That's something to be proud of," he added.

Yeah, I'd be proud if I'd turned the best game into a pansy sport if I was too chicken to play hockey and rather be a little Hitler and dictate to men who if i were a player would kick my ass.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


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#4 njdevil26

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Posted 23 December 2005 - 02:20 PM

i agree with most of your complaints except your anger towards the lack of diving discipiline... theres a lot going on... players are getting more penalties for diving and they get letters and fines for it now
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#5 peteyvegas

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Posted 23 December 2005 - 08:29 PM

Anything's better than Van Hellemond. Remember, he is the one responsible for the high sticking epidemic. Before he was in the league, you rarely saw high sticking (at least not to the degree you do today). Now the players naturally think nothing of bringing their stick up. He practically introduced the helmet to the game.
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#6 Don

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Posted 23 December 2005 - 08:45 PM

....whole bunch o' crap....



:cryriver:

(1) Diving: Players *ARE* being fined for diving. It is a subjective matter, so it takes a lot of balls for a ref to call it in game... guys have turned it into an art form. However, each game is being watched by NHL officials, repeatedly, to ensure that there were no dives. I don't know what else they can possibly do....

(2) The referees are being graded and peer-reviewed. On the HNIC hotstove, John Davidson said that he was for a promotion/demotion deal with the union that he'd like to have instituted with the next referee CBA (coming up this year). This proposal is where the top 5 AHL referees get promoted to the NHL for the lowest graded referees at the NHL level. But even at the current level, there is discipline for the referees. You just don't see it. They don't make it public. Airing dirty laundry just gives the sport another black eye.

(3) Defencemen are not penalized for "challenging" forwards. Unless by "challenging" you mean hooking, holding the stick, draping themselves all over the forward, hugging, grabbing, cross-checking.... all those other things that have long been against the rules but never called. If they want to hit the forward coming in, all the power to them. If they want to use positioning to stop the forward go for it.

(4) The skilled players couldn't pass with someone laying on top of them.

(5) Why don't you and all the other clutch-and-grab lovers follow Goodenow instead? I, and the vast, vast, vast majority of hockey fans are pleased to see the clutching and grabbing gone. If you like it, go watch European hockey because that's all they do and it's like watching paint dry. But if that's your cup of tea, go for it. BUT DON'T ASK FOR IT BACK IN THE NHL.
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