Video review technology has changed officiating in hockey. On one hand, video allows for the most accurate and consistent calling of games the sport has ever seen. On the other, it has raised fans’ expectations, and they justifiably demand a much higher standard than they did in the past.
Stephen Walkom, the NHL’s director of officiating, first stepped on NHL ice as an official more than 30 years ago. What has changed most in the profession over that span? How is the cross-checking crackdown going? Why do the playoffs seem to have a different set of rules than the regular season? How close are we to seeing a woman officiate an NHL game? Walkom recently caught up with The Hockey News to answer those questions and more.
THE HOCKEY NEWS: You were director of officiating from 2005 to 2009, and you made a four-year comeback as an on-ice official from 2009 to 2013 before returning to your current role. You’re still in good shape for your age today. Ever get the itch for another comeback?
STEPHEN WALKOM: There’s always a strong attraction to being on the ice and in the game. I'm lucky enough that I can still get on the ice with my kids, play some hockey, and I don't think you ever lose that desire to be on the ice. It’s really important in my role to never forget what it was like to be on the ice.
THN: You started as an NHL official in 1990. What do you think is the biggest change in calling a game between then and now?
WALKOM: It used to be, when you refereed the game, it was “your game.” You refereed the game. There was really no NHL standard on penalty calling and enforcement. Now in the game, there’s a standard on everything from how we set up at faceoffs, to how we present the puck, to hooking, to holding, to interference, and it doesn't matter what you're doing as an official in the game of hockey.
There has been video guidance given to everybody, a standard that's expected by fans, players, coaches and even officials on how the game is to be called. We never had video back then. When we came to training camp, we would read the rulebook. Now we see the rulebook and we see lots of plays, lots of situations, and we see them visually, so that's a big change from an officiating perspective. I also think it’s affected the way the game is called. There’s a lot more consistency right across the NHL.
When I came into the NHL a long time ago, we were looked at as a league that was an outlier compared to all other hockey leagues. Now I think the NHL is really a leader in (officiating), because no matter what we do in the NHL, every other professional league in the world and a lot of the amateur leagues are all trying to duplicate it almost immediately. Everything from all the faceoffs on the nine dots, to pucks deflecting off in the attacking zone and all staying inside, standard of enforcement, across a whole multitude of penalties. Everybody is looking at our situation handbook, everybody's looking at our rulebook, and everybody's looking at our best practices in terms of how we apply them and try to duplicate them. That, to me, is great for the game.
THN: With social media spawning mobs of fans scrutinizing replays every night, is officiating a tougher job than it used to be?
WALKOM: It used to be, as an official, you strive to have a good game. Now the game is called with such precision, and there’s almost an expectation of perfection. That'll never be achieved, but everybody's pushing for excellence every single night. And in a game, a missed trip can get blown up into something that's way bigger than it is in the context of a 60-minute game because of social media, because of video. Those are the real challenges for every official that works any game anywhere now. There's always a lot of armchair people officiating at home.
THN: When you’re passing down instruction to the league’s officials, is there any particular habit or pet peeve you try to coach out of them?
WALKOM: My grandfather used to always say, “Hard work won't kill you – worry will,” and we really believe that in terms of our management team. If the officials come to the ice and the rink with energy, with enthusiasm and real good work ethic, it will rub off on the participants, the coaches and the players in the right way. There’s a lot more forgiveness when people are working hard on the ice and the mistake might happen than if you're not, so that’s really important for all the officials on our team. They pride themselves on serving the game at a high level with that type of energy and effort. If we don't see that, that’s something that would be my pet peeve. We know that mistakes will happen, but if you're working hard, you minimize those mistakes, and you'll learn from them, recover from them quicker, and that always serves the game best.
THN: The league has cracked down on the enforcement of cross-checking for 2021-22. So far, we’re seeing almost 70 percent more cross-checking penalties called. How satisfied are you with the results?
WALKOM: It starts with the buy-in, no different than the enforcement on hooking and holding and the interference and slashing before that, to get the players’ buy-in and to get direction from the general managers that we wanted to build a stricter standard of enforcement and a more consistent standard throughout the ice. That was the first step. And then I think our (officials), given direction, have executed what they've been asked to do very well.
And the players are learning very quickly. We’re seeing a lot of conformity (to the rules) in the game. We would expect that penalties would level out at some point, but that won't have anything to do with us not being focused and continuing our vigilance and calling cross-checking. It's that the players don't want to take penalties, so they'll learn the line. And I think the video they all saw at the start of the year, the video reinforcement that we will continue to use during the year, will assist in keeping us on track in that regard.
So I've been very pleased at the buy-in by the players, the support from the general managers to get this stricter standard in place and at the commitment from our team in getting it done.
THN: Myth or reality: the game is called differently in the regular season compared to the playoffs. Is that a theory you agree with? Is there sort of an invisible standard that changes? Is that the way it should be?
WALKOM: A player pointed this out to me not long ago when he said, “We play differently in the playoffs. We’re told that we can't take penalties, we're told that we can't do anything after the whistle. It's drilled into us that we have to be disciplined and maybe isn't drilled in as much during the regular season.”
I can assure one thing we continually try to reinforce with our team is: we have one NHL standard, and we want it called. If we looked back on the game in the last 10 to 15 years, it was rare that you saw a penalty in overtime, it was rare that you saw a penalty late in the game. Now in the game it's almost normal that if the official sees a penalty they'll react to it regardless of the time in the game. So when it comes to playoffs, everything is heightened. I don't believe the data shows that penalties fall off in the playoffs, but I do think player discipline is very much heightened in the playoffs. And I can tell you that we in management support our officials to call the NHL standard, but that doesn't mean we want to over-call the physicality that often comes with playoffs – meaning legal hitting, all those things. The players, they play at another level in the playoffs. And we have to recognize that and not overreact to the physicality but at the same time still call the standard that we've been calling all year on all the other penalties in the game
We've undone the label that, “Oh, the refs put their whistles away in the third period. If there's no penalties in the game." Generally speaking, it's because there weren't any penalties committed. We have a real check and balance now in the game. The officials are very accountable to the standard. Within the game, post-game, they review all the calls that they make and all the calls that they didn't make, and they're constantly reinforcing themselves on what it means to serve the game of hockey. Playoff hockey is the best hockey in the sport, and we really work to have our officiating match it.
THN: The Officiating Exposure Combine helps develop officials’ skills, but is it also a recruiting tool for undiscovered talents?
WALKOM: It’s to give people that have a skating skill set the opportunity to be exposed to officiating, to see if they like it, and to give others the opportunity to be found so that we get them on the radar in front of, not just our league, but major junior hockey, the USHL, East Coast Hockey League, minor-pro leagues and even some of the amateur leagues throughout Canada and the U.S. It’s a recruitment mechanism hidden within a combine that allows our prospects to be tested, to be evaluated on and off the ice. It really (wears) a few hats. We found it very useful for ensuring we have a long-term supply of great officials.
It’s also important that amateur hockey embraces the ingratiation of hockey players into officiating. The game is getting faster, you need a skating skill set to keep up, and what better place to get them than from the benches? It’s also been a great way for us to be inclusive with bringing elite women into the combine. Women have always been invited and welcome to apply to the combine, but now we're seeing some really great athletes come to the combine, which is great for the game.
THN: All 10 women officiating in the AHL this season came through the Officiating Exposure Combine and/or the NHL Officiating Association’s mentorship program for women. Does that mean we have strong odds of seeing women officiating in the NHL soon? Any guess of a timeline?
WALKOM: We had an opportunity during COVID (in 2020) to take the elite women officials in North America and build a mentorship program which allowed them to interact with NHL officials and learn from each other. Our guys on the ice have learned something from the women just as the women might have learned something from our guys. And then the combine was a great place for many of them to come in and get on the ice, play hockey, ref hockey, see what was required to get to the next level of hockey for each one of them.
Getting to the American Hockey League is a huge step, and seeing women in professional hockey is great for hockey because these women are really the trailblazers for all women in the future. I'm not so sure that I can put a timeline on it of when, but I can assure you it's not too far in the distant future to see women in the NHL. First you have to conquer the American Hockey League, and these women are getting the opportunity to do that, and I don't want to take away from that accomplishment. Each of them is just getting initiated into professional hockey right now, and I know it's exciting for them, and it's a big step. Obviously, the next step is to get to the NHL, and it's something we're all excited about, and it should certainly be celebrated.
This is an extended version of an interview that appeared in the 2022 Money & Power edition of The Hockey News.