TORONTO – Ottawa may be home to the country’s highest court, but this night, NHL referee Freddy L’Ecuyer is looking elsewhere for a ruling.
L’Ecuyer is on the phone at Scotiabank Place. At the other end, in the NHL’s Toronto video room, is Kris King, a former captain of the Winnipeg Jets who now serves as the league’s vice-president of hockey operations.
“Freddy, I’m here,” says King, already aware of why he’s called.
On the wall in front of him hangs a massive television screen that has been cycling through a replay over and over. It shows Edmonton Oilers forward Zack Stortini hammering away as a crowd descends on Ottawa Senators goalie Brian Elliott, who ends up getting shoved into the net along with the puck.
L’Ecuyer had blown the play dead, but wants to make sure the correct protocol is followed before the game continues.
“OK, the reason why I blew the whistle is because the guy pushed the goalie in the net,” says L’Ecuyer. “That’s not reviewable, right?”
“That’s correct,” replies King. “That’s what I wanted to hear. Good call, thank you.”
The entire scene plays out in less than a minute—barely enough time for the television broadcasts to show a few replays of their own while announcers note the referee is putting in a call to the league’s head office in Toronto.
In closed company, the referees refer to the video room as “heaven”—a term intended as both a compliment and a playful shot at those who work there. The room can be helpful on controversial goals, serving as an extra eye in the sky for the referee, but it also can make life miserable when video from a bad penalty call is passed on to director of officiating Terry Gregson.
The video room is housed in a converted conference space on the 11th floor of an office building adjacent to the Air Canada Centre. Packed with high-definition TVs and personal video recorders, it becomes a second home for a small group of dedicated hockey men during the season (as many as six or seven work on a busy night).
When they’re working, the perfect game is one that includes clear-cut goals, no controversial penalties and no shootout. The video room must monitor every shootout and make sure each attempt is called correctly on the ice before the next shooter is allowed to go.
This is the kind of job where employees long for a quiet night. They rarely get one.
“It’s funny,” said King. “You can go through a Saturday night when you have 12 games and not have a review … and then you can have a night where you have three games and have three reviews and two shootouts at the same time. There’s no rhyme or reason.
“This is a funny game. Some nights there’s a full moon.”
As it turns out, this is not one of those nights.
However, when a visitor points out how quiet it’s been both King and boss Colin Campbell quickly race to knock their knuckles on a desk. It’s one of many rituals staff in the video room seem to have developed.
Campbell is most often associated with being the NHL’s disciplinarian, but his job as head of hockey operations encompasses much more than handing out discipline. The department is responsible for identifying trends in the sport, watching for controversial calls during games and even looking out for potential problems in arenas (such as funny bounces off the glass, poor ice conditions, etc.).
Mike Murphy and King are essentially Campbell’s right-hand men, and each spends many nights in the video room. They take charge of goal reviews like the one King handled with L’Ecuyer.
“We know it’s an important job and we know that it’s a job that on any given night could cost teams wins, which ultimately could cost them playoff spots,” said King. “We take it very seriously. We’re out of an environment of the arena, with 17,000 fans shouting ‘Goal!’ or ‘No goal!’ and we’re very consistent.
“We see way more kicked-in pucks, high-sticked pucks, plays that happen all around the league than our video goal judges would in the 30 particular buildings.”
The entire setup has come a long way from its roots. The video room started at the league’s New York office back in 1997 with a large satellite dish being placed in a boardroom.
The evolution continues to this day as the NHL has purchased more office space and is in the process of building a completely new video room that is expected to be ready for next season.
During a typical night, a staff member is assigned to each game and logs notable plays—anything from a potentially controversial hit to a nice penalty call by a referee to something that illustrates a growing trend like a bodycheck that makes contact with a head. Those logs are used to cut up clips that can easily be emailed to Gregson, Campbell or NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
Virtually the entire evening is spent talking hockey. With everyone in the room watching one game or another, questions are constantly being thrown out to no one in particular:
—”Where’s (Henrik) Lundqvist in the league?”
—”What do you think the shields are in the league? Are they at 70 (per cent) yet?”
—”Can (Robyn) Regehr fight?”
—”How’s (Cam) Fowler as a player?”
—”Has (Ryan) Smyth ever scored a goal farther than eight feet from the net?”
—”Is Eric Nystrom playing much for Minnesota?”
This is how time passes here—at least when there aren’t plays to be reviewed.
The NHL standings are updated by hand on a white board in the video room and employees count down the games, hoping each night passes without incident. All told, they watch more hockey than most fans.
“When there’s 1,230 regular-season games, you can watch anywhere from 200 to 300 games (a year) sitting up here,” said King. “But you’ve got to remember there’s somebody in this department who is watching every one that is on TV and there’s not too many that aren’t on TV any more.
“There’s a lot of good hockey being watched by guys who obviously love the game.”