Walkom has refs keeping tight reins

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:45 AM ET

There isn't much that hasn't happened through a rollicking NHL playoffs.

Only one thing is missing, the calling card of the clutch and grab, the call to "Let them play."

Here's a number for you. In 2004, a penalty was called in one in 10 playoff overtime games. This year, the post-season has averaged 1.6 penalties in extra time per overtime game.

That is a revolution. It's architect is Steven Walkom, hired by the league last August as its director of officiating.

Walkom's arrival on the job after 14 years as a full-time official, signalled a seismic shift in the way the game would be officiated.

"To be truthful, you used to go on to the ice and cruise," Walkom said.

The old way of doing business easily was grasped and, with only one official, above challenge.

"In the old days, our guys had been conditioned from playing hockey and going on to reffing hockey that as the game tightens up, you would only call the grievous penalty."

"Let them play" is part strategy, part utopian notion that so long as no one does anything too dangerous or obvious, players could be allowed to move through a succession of minor fouls until a victor had been decided.

It was a terrible theory of course. For one thing, it made for terrible hockey. For another, it shifted the use of the hockey stick from something to use on the puck to something to use on an opponent.

Remember the laughter when league officials came out of the lockout saying this time they would get it right.

"NHL cracks down on interference" is a headline written more often than "Figure skater falls."

Just wait until Christmas, the smart money said. Then the all-star-break. Then the post-season.

Well, the playoffs are here and the numbers are in. Man advantages per game are up substantially from 8.7 per playoff game in 2004 to 11.7 per game this year.

There has been a corresponding surge in scoring from last year, up 1.5 goals per game to 5.8.

The most telling is the number of penalties: 13.9 penalties per game in the playoffs to 13.8 penalties per game in the regular season. Nothing changed when the players started playing for real.

Three things happened to make the NHL's claim it could fix the game credible.

Desperate to improve the product and wash the taste of the lockout from the fan's mouth, the league was willing to stomach the adverse publicity and carping that came with calling more penalties.

Second, it hired Walkom to succeed Andy vanHellemond, a veteran and master of the "Let them play" philosophy.

Third, the NHL turned its manpower and technology in the NHL Toronto offices toward gaining compliance.

Supervisors review games as they are played looking for questionable calls. E-mail allows league officials to flag and move video every night. Even if officials wanted to return to the old ways, there are too many eyes. Every day, Walkom deals with clips that he can either set aside or forward to the referees from his home near Pittsburgh.

Refs, Walkom said, are continuing to evolve to the standard just the way the players are.

"We're still working on reacting, not watching," Walkom said.

"And yes, we still have missed calls. Our guys are human. But if a call isn't made, it isn't from choice now, it's from not seeing it."

The myth that eliminating interference would kill physical play exploded about the time that Buffalo Sabres defenceman Brian Campbell levelled Philadelphia Flyers forward R.J. Umberger in Game 1 of their playoffs. If anything, unimpeded players hit harder.

Yes, late penalties are contentious and five on threes feel like a staggering intrusion on the game.

But the game is better, far better, than the way it used to be.


Videos

Photos