August 21, 2011
Certain NHL referees mutter to themselves more than a conspiracy theorist jittering down a sidewalk in Times Square.
These under-the-breath declarations can be anything from an expression of exasperation to determining whether or not a play could be considered a penalty — 'That's not a hook!', for example.
Normally, that chatter keeps a ref engaged in the action. At the NHL Research and Development Camp last week in Toronto, that chatter could confuse the hell out of the rest of his officiating crew when spoken into a live wireless mic.
"There may have been a little over-chatter. At least in the first session," said Dave Pfohl, an OHL linesman who helped test the technology at the R&D Camp, as officials communicated through wireless headsets and mics during the two days of scrimmages.
"It was unique, interesting to try. Pros and cons to it," he said.
What's clear after the test run is that, for fans and players, the pros outweigh the cons — and some of the more serious drawbacks will disappear if this technology revolutionizes the NHL officiating.
For a linesman, the biggest benefit was the ability to communicate across the ice with his partner without having to look at each other.
"It was great to communicate with the linesman throughout the game," said Pfohl, after the second day of the R&D Camp, where dozens of proposed NHL rules were tested. "A lot of times we use hand signals. [With the mics] you don't have to look and make eye contact as much. You can keep your eye on the puck."
Which, we imagine, is a good thing.
It also helps with direct communication on fast-paced plays in a deafening arena environment. Example: One linesman sees a deflected puck, one doesn't, and instead of a hand signal that might go unseen or a shout that the crown drowns out, the officials can hear each other through the headset.
The best use of the new tech? During chaos.
The bane of many fans' existence is hearing a whistle blow during a mad scramble in front of the crease while the puck is clearly loose. With the wireless communication, a referee behind the play can better relay information about a live play to the other official, who might be blocked from seeing the puck.
"We yell now as it is, but with the crowd, this would definitely help," said Pfohl.
The cons? One significant one is that the officials suddenly have one of their ears blocked by the Bluetooth-esque headset. It affects perception and hearing on the ice.
"Some of the cons are it blocks your hearing on one side. There was one time where a player came out of the penalty box and I couldn't hear him coming, and he almost ran me over. When you're in the corner you want to be able to hear that. You want to be able to move and get out of the way. Sometimes it affects your focus. You're saying something, you're trying to watch a close play and (your partner) is yapping in your ear. Sometimes you can lose your focus."
Pfohl agreed, saying that he "lost perception" on the side where the earpiece was located.
Then there's another issue: Blowing the whistle.
The volume on the mics is controlled off-ice, and going from normal conversation to an ear-piercing whistle caused some discomfort at the R&D Camp.
In talking to the linesman, one gets the sense these are issues that can be solved through repetitive use and learning how to integrate the technology into their routine; and that these adjustments are worth it, given the benefits to the innovation.
It's a system that will continue to be tested in camps and exhibition season. Could it revolutionize the job?
"I don't know if I can make that prediction," said Pfohl, "but it's got potential."