Big Murph Is Watching

There's a video goal judge at each NHL game, but the final word on questionable scores comes from the league's nerve center in Toronto. Every night Mike Murphy and his crew become an all-seeing eye in the sky. Here's an inside look at how it works
March 20, 2006

It is 8:44 p.m.,and I am watching six men look for a puck. They stare anxiously at plasmascreens and computer monitors and speak in tense, clipped sentences, as if atoddler and not a vulcanized rubber disk, 3.0 inches in diameter, had gonemissing. The search commenced after the Senators' Peter Schaefer wascross-checked into the Washington goal and the net swayed on its pegs and thepuck did or didn't trickle across the goal line. This series of eventsnaturally coincided with the precise moment that one of the 10 TiVo machineschose to malfunction.

This is the video room in NHL headquarters in Toronto. The business of hockeymight occur in the main offices on the Avenue of the Americas in New York City,but the central nervous system of the sport is here, in a windowless,36-by-12-foot room with spartan workstations, muted track lighting and wallsthat, in the reflected glow of the screens, appear to be the color of neglectedteeth. It's called the "war room" by almost everybody except those whowork there. "I mean, this isn't war," says Damian Echevarrieta, theNHL's video director. "This is just hockey."

No, this is not life or death, just goal or no goal, which could mean merely awin or a loss, a Stanley Cup playoff berth or an early summer, millions inrevenue or nothing. Nominally the validity of a goal rests with video goaljudges, men who sit secluded in booths that ring the upper reaches of NHLarenas. But when video review in Toronto was introduced during the 2002--03season--the NHL having decided that this committee of rule-book scholars inToronto, hockey and computer literate, was more dependable than a single set ofeyes--the judges became glorified telephone operators. Now if there is ascintilla of doubt whether, or how, a puck crosses the line, the judges mustcall Toronto immediately. (If they don't, well, two have been suspended for 10games each this season for not following procedures.) When TV announcers say,"They're going upstairs" for a review, they are going way upstairs, tothe 11th floor of the Air Canada Centre office tower.

In a sweater andslacks I am seriously overdressed. When the NHL changed its rules to eliminateties for 2005--06, the ban apparently applied to the video center as well. MikeMurphy, the NHL senior vice president of hockey operations who organizes thenightly searches for lost pucks, is wearing a black golf shirt. His boss,executive VP of hockey operations Colin Campbell, is wearing jeans. The rest ofthe staffers look as casual as if they were in their own living rooms, thoughit's doubtful their homes have dual $15,000 plasmas over the mantel.

There also is acertain informality of speech, reflected in the liberal use of nicknames.Murphy is Murph, video reviewer Tim Campbell (no relation to Colin) is Bone, amoniker which was hung on him by the late Roger Neilson at a hockey camp yearsago. Kris King, the former NHL tough guy who's now a hockey-operationsconsultant, is Kinger, and Echevarrieta is simply D.

He might not havethe on-ice hockey experience of a Murphy or a King--having played on a DivisionIII team at St. John's in Queens, N.Y.--but there is a certain deferencetowards Echevarrieta because of his ability with the gadgets. He started as anintern with the New York Rangers and wound up breaking down video for ColinCampbell when Campbell coached New York. When Campbell moved into NHL hockeyoperations in 1998, he brought along Echevarrieta, who now watches an averageof two hockey broadcasts a night, seven days a week, 29 weeks a year. "Youknow the commercials that are pretty funny when you see them in October?"he says. "By April, they're just not that funny."

the nhl doesn'tget good TV ratings, but it does get video review better than any other league.The recent NFL playoffs were a reminder of how amateurish the most muscular ofleagues looks when it wrestles with technology. (Doesn't a referee staring intoa machine with a clock running look like he's at a circa 1957 Times Square peepshow?) While the NFL slogs through a swamp littered with innumerable challengepossibilities, including whether feet were inbounds, a knee touched the groundor the ball penetrated an invisible plane along the goal line, NHL's BigBrother sticks to goals.

As outlined inrule 93, only six situations are subject to review, including a puck crossingthe line, a puck directed into the goal by a hand or foot, or a puck struck bya high stick. There are admirable limits and a notable efficiency, somethingthat worked against the league in a controversial play during Game 6 of the2004 final, when it appeared that Calgary's Martin Gélinas had nudged the puckpast Tampa Bay goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. The refs ruled it was not a goal, anda review was quickly called for. In the NHL system, when a no-goal ruling isquestioned, Murphy and his team have until the next stoppage of play to make acorrection. (When there's a question about a goal that's called good, theensuing face-off is delayed until the review can be completed.) Working on avideo system that had been set up in the arena, Murphy was able to confirm in47 seconds that the refs were correct. "The problem was, we were tooquick," says Colin Campbell. "People thought we didn't even check it.We had it. But if we'd made a big show of reviewing it, it would have beenbetter for us."

The NHL, ofcourse, is far from perfect, and some high-profile blunders paved the way forthe video room. The league was embarrassed in the 2000 playoffs whenPhiladelphia's John LeClair blasted a shot through the side of the net, abreach that the supervisor at the rink that day, John D'Amico, didn't detectuntil play had long since resumed.

Even now thesystem isn't foolproof--and not merely because it depends on the cameramen andTV directors working each game. To underscore how difficult the job can be,Murphy, the final arbiter on most nights, brought a clip of a disputed goal byOilers winger Ales Hemsky to the general managers' meeting near Las Vegas lastmonth. Twelve of the G.M.'s thought it should have been a goal and 18 didn't.(Murphy says it was a good goal.)

Occasionally theNHL even boots an easy one. On Jan. 21 in Calgary, Flames defenseman RobynRegehr kicked in a puck against the Sabres. The violation was spotted inToronto, but by the time the goal judge in the Saddledome was contacted, playhad resumed and thus the goal stood. (Later in the game Campbell called Buffalogeneral manager Darcy Regier to apologize. The video goal judge in Calgary wassubsequently suspended for not calling Toronto.) Almost three quarters of theway through the schedule Murphy counts only three other gaffes that haveslithered through the system, human imperfections in a game rife with them.

fortified withpizzas, salad and bottles of water, Murphy and his staff assume their placesbefore the plasma screens or LCD computer monitors. It is shortly after 7 p.m.,a few minutes before the puck drops in the first of 10 games this night inearly March. Each man is assigned a game or two while Murphy, who coversVancouver-Nashville, coordinates. The principal task is to verify goals fromthe various feeds--this night, only one of the overhead cameras in the StaplesCenter is functioning--but they also log every penalty, note minutiae such ashow a linesman drops the puck on face-offs, and comment on the refereeing. If acall strikes them as particularly egregious, or insightful, they will highlightit and e-mail a clip to Stephen Walkom, the director of officiating, who willcheck it out and perhaps send it on to his officials. For 17 minutes between9:08 and 9:25 p.m., nine games are in progress. On the two picture-in-pictureplasmas, Murphy keeps an eye on a jigsaw puzzle of hockey. A novice can followone, two games. Murphy, an old hand, swallows multiple games whole on twoscreens.

This is a busypost-Olympic night, but mercifully it is a Thursday. For reasons unfathomableto the officials in this room, there seems to be a full moon every hockeySaturday night. "By 7:30 on a Saturday," Murphy says, "we mightalready have had to look at four goals." Tonight there will be 47 goalsscored in the 10 games, not counting one in a shootout, but only three willrequire a second look in Toronto. One general manager, Atlanta's Don Waddell,will phone in to complain about a penalty called by referee Brad Watson thatleads to Boston's winning power-play goal. ("Brad Watson may be the bestref we have," Murphy tells him.) Colin Campbell will phone two otherG.M.'s, Bob Clarke of the Flyers and Glen Sather of the Rangers, after a fightbreaks out in the last five minutes of the New York--Philly game. Through themiracle of video science, Campbell knows that Flyers winger Donald Brashear hadspent the game stalking Rangers defenseman Darius Kasparaitis, looking forpayback for a Kasparaitis hip-check that had injured the Flyers' Simon Gagné atthe Olympics. Campbell has already decided on a one-game suspension forBrashear and a $10,000 fine for his coach, Ken Hitchcock. (In the old days ofplayer discipline, teams had to gather videotape of a heinous offense and sendit to the league. Now Campbell can download it in the video room, send a copyto the players' association electronically and hold a hearing, if necessary,the next day.)

In the five hoursand 47 minutes of hockey, the men will offer terse comments on Rene Rancourt'snational anthem in Boston (superb), hockey writer Brian Biggane's sport jacketduring a between-periods interview in Florida (too plaid), suspected dives byFlorida's Olli Jokinen and Nashville's Martin Erat, the turning radius of newFlames defenseman Cale Hulse ("That's why I call him 'the aircraftcarrier'"), Nickelback versus Garth Brooks and a breakaway by Minnesota'sMarian Gaborik ("Who's in net for L.A.?" "No one").Commissioner Gary Bettman, who calls almost nightly, telephones from his home,checking on the final disposition of the missing puck.

Murphy and hismen, after some tense seconds, locate it. Referee Don Van Massenhoven ruled ita goal, but the video goal judge is phoning for the prescribed second opinion.After a few inconclusive replays, an overhead camera clearly shows the puckcrossing the line as the net shakes on its pegs. "Everybody got a goalhere?" Murphy asks. There are unanimous mutters of assent. Murphy says,"Good goal," into the phone and hangs up. It is 8:45. He watches thescreen as Van Massenhoven, phone to ear, gets the word from the video goaljudge. The veteran referee pivots and points to center ice, and 19,000 fanserupt. In Ottawa, this is drama. In Toronto, it's already old news.

While the NFL slogs through a swamp littered withinnumerable challenge possibilities, NHL's Big Brother STICKS TO GOALS.

Murphy brought a clip of a disputed goal to a generalmanagers' meeting; 12 G.M.'s THOUGHT IT WAS A GOAL, 18 did not.

PHOTOPhotograph by David BergmanCOUCH POTENTATE Murphy, the NHL's video room honcho, follows multiple games on two giant plasma TVs at once so he can make swift decisions whenever there's a call for help from an arena. PHOTOAL CHAREST/CALGARY SUN/AP NET RESULT Instant replay worked almost too well in the '04 playoffs, confirming in 47 seconds that the Flames' Gelinas didn't score. PHOTOGENE PUSKAR/APMUST-SEE TV Bad calls such as the one on Brett Hull's foot-in-the-crease Stanley Cup clincher in '99 led to the idea of a video room.