Walkom, officials look to learn from first 'new' season

Updated: September 26, 2006, 2:53 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

The biggest fear for hockey people heading into this season is that they'll wake up on Oct. 4 and find out that they're like Pam Ewing on the old television show Dallas, that all the good that was accomplished last season was a big dream.

Only it won't be Bobby Ewing coming out of the shower, it'll be Jacques Lemaire and he'll be wrapped in the neutral-zone trap.

AAAAARRRRGGGHHH!

The genesis of this fear is the understanding that last year was but one step down a long road toward Hockey Shangri-La. It was a big step, but the second step along these kinds of journeys to enlightenment is often more difficult, and the NHL cannot afford to take any backward steps after shutting its doors for an entire season in 2004-05.

Kerry Fraser
Dave Sandford/Getty ImagesNHL on-ice officials were able to consistently enforce the new rules throughout the entire season.

"Maintaining the standards of enforcement and continuing to improve officiating is a big focus this year," deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN.com.

Here's why it shouldn't be as hard as people might imagine.

First of all, NHL officials have never received as much praise as they have in the past 12 months.

"Gary Bettman, [director of hockey operations] Colin Campbell and [director of officiating] Stephen Walkom, they get straight 'A' marks from my perspective," Anaheim GM Brian Burke recently told ESPN.com. "It won't be hard to get people to buy into it this year. The game's gotten better. The fans like it better."

For a group that regularly takes a kick in the teeth as a backhanded compliment, the NHL's officials received kudos from every corner of the hockey world (with the possible exception of "Hockey Night in Canada" host Ron MacLean).

When it looked like standards were slipping slightly midway through last season, Walkom gathered his staff during the Olympic break for a little attitude readjustment. For those who feared the playoffs would see a return to rodeo hockey (you know, throw a rope around an opponent and hog-tie him so he can't pass, shoot or score), their fears were baseless as the standards of officiating remained high in what was a compelling, physical postseason.

Given that kind of positive reinforcement, Walkom said his staff can't wait to get back on the ice to take the next step. There is no questioning or waffling about the direction the group is headed after the successes of last season.

"We've got to stay the course. We've got to be as good or better as we were last year," Walkom said. "I was real pleased for the game. To see the game roar again was great."

In preparing for the upcoming season, officials will have the benefit of being able to learn from actual game footage from the previous season. It's a big difference from the 2005-06 season, when officials used old game tapes to try and imagine how they would have called the new rules.

There is also constant communication within the officials' community regarding technique and anticipating areas in which coaches and players are going to try and gain an advantage vis-a-vis the new enforcement.

"Mentally, we have to be prepared to react when something happens outside the parameters of the rules. That's the art of officiating," Walkom said. "We'll also take our team building to another level this year."

One thing that should make this process infinitely easier this season is that, for the most part, players get it. And the ones that don't get it are being marginalized because coaches can't afford to have a player on the ice who's going to take two or three minor penalties a night because he can't remember that it's wrong to jam his stick up under an opposing player's arm as he skates by him.

Kerry Fraser
Dave Sandford/Getty ImagesReferee Kerry Fraser signals in game four of the Eastern Conference Semi-finals between the Buffalo Sabres and the Ottawa Senators during the 2006 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on May 11, 2006 at HSBC Arena in Buffalo, New York.

Coaches who went into training camp anticipating how the game was going to be called, like Dallas' Dave Tippett, Buffalo's Lindy Ruff and Carolina's Peter Laviolette, were the ones whose teams got a great jump out of the gate last season. Now, most coaches employ officials during scrimmages to call the rigorous standards from Day 1 of training camp.

This season, officials will be working from one streamlined rule book as opposed to case studies that tried to explain the nuances of exactly how the league wanted the rules enforced. Now, officials and players know it, and this year, it will be about refining the new standards ever so slightly.

The competition committee, endorsed by the league's board of governors, mandated that officials focus more closely on embellishing fouls or diving. Fines, suspensions and public humiliation await those who become chronic offenders.

"You can't allow it to be culturally acceptable to dive," said E.J. McGuire, the head of the NHL's Central Scouting Service and a longtime manager and coach.

"It's probably one of the by-products of the new standards," Walkom agreed. "But let's not be na´ve to think that gaining a competitive edge by embellishing wasn't always a part of the game."

One area that apparently left defenders particularly puzzled was the ability to fight off opponents in front of the net or in the corner.

"Fans want to see battles, fans want to see contact," McGuire said.

He and others would like to see the lines of what warrants an acceptable battle for position more clearly defined and adjudicated.

Walkom said that as last season progressed, there were more battles without fouls being called, and that is a natural evolution of players understanding how to play under the new rules. After the success of last season, any changes in how the game is officiated this season will be relatively cosmetic; important, but cosmetic nonetheless.

If there is a seminal change as it relates to officiating and the future of the NHL, it is a change that will take place nowhere near NHL rinks.

From the AHL on down through every level of hockey in the United States and Canada, there is now a movement to replicate what the NHL has accomplished in terms of calling the game.

If it is successful, it is the kind of seismic change in hockey attitudes that should ensure the NHL's product for the long term, and perhaps most significantly, create a whole base of hockey fans from minor hockey on up.

"The entire hockey community has embraced what we tried to do last year," Daly said. "That spirit of change has picked up momentum instead of facing resistance."

The NCAA, USA Hockey, Hockey Canada, the East Coast Hockey League and the Central Hockey League have all pledged to try and mirror the standards of enforcement seen in the NHL.

Where there were pockets of resistance, like in the Western Hockey League, the rough and tumble western arm of the Canadian Hockey League, it was quickly quashed by the league's own masters.

Not that trying to copy the NHL won't be without its problems.

These other leagues don't have the resources the NHL does. Most of those leagues don't employ two referees and their officials are by the nature of the system younger and less experienced. But as long as coaches, parents and managers are able to look at the big picture and not stymie the will to change by carping about every 5-on-3 in the local pee wee league, change will come at all levels of the game.

This across-the-board change is "vital to the future of the league," Daly said. "We are trying to aid and assist in any way we can in that process."

For instance, Walkom met with officials from a host of hockey leagues and organizations in Minnesota this summer to talk about how to get to where the NHL is now.

Why is it important? Simple.

"Players are creatures of their environments," Daly said. "If they come out of minor hockey, junior hockey, college hockey learning to play by the standards enforced at the NHL level, they won't have to relearn the game at the highest level, as is the case now."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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