I called the NHL research and development camp a mad hockey laboratory before, and – no doubt about it – the event features some odd little hockey experiments. We plan on discussing some of the most interesting ideas and studies taking place in the two-day event, but one of the most interesting changes could affect how referees see the game.
The league used Scott Ferguson as a “guinea pig” to see want kind of benefits would come from placing one official on an elevated platform off the ice instead of having a traditional spot between the boards. NHL.com features an interesting story about the experience, which might compare to being a tennis chair umpire like the one in the photo for this post.
“I think there is good and bad to it,” he said. “It’s good in regard that when (Lewis) is down at the net I can see what is going on behind him. Say we have a scrum at the net and the D-men come in, I can always communicate with him. I can watch the changes on the bench so if we have a too-many-men-on-the-ice situation, I can see that. But you don’t feel the game. You don’t feel when the intensity starts to rise and that was the tough part about it.”
He also said he didn’t think he had a better look at the game from his elevated post, and he did not see the far end of the ice well.
“Certain angles you could see better, like, say, along the boards. But I would say definitely you could not see better as being on the ice,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson was able to make five penalty calls during the game, but pointed out that he struggled to communicate with his reffing partner Dave Lewis. Then again, there was the amusing benefit of not being able to hear coach Ken Hitchcock barking at him for a call or lack of a call. Having some eyes outside the fray might have a “Big Brother” effect, although unlike in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, that virtual omniscience could make for some cleaner play.
Interesting because, as Hitchcock noted, having Ferguson in his elevated position meant the players couldn’t get away with anything cheap behind the play.
“He can see everything, and when you’re up that high the game is slower, so I think the players mentally are more careful,” Hitchcock said. “A couple of guys commented that you’re not going to get away with anything. It’s an interesting concept because if you’re talking about cleaning up the dirty work behind the play, you’re not going to get away with anything with a guy standing there.”
The idea certainly has some merit, but I doubt that we’d see it in action any time soon. Of course, one of the biggest reasons why it might not ever happen is as simple as dollars and cents: would an NHL team want to block off some of their most expensive seats so an official could stand on such a perch? I highly doubt it, but it would be interesting if it made officiating a more “exact science” in hockey.
Update: Here is a video of referees commenting on the changed vantage point.