Stephen Walkom has strapped on the lonesome skates of an NHL referee, so he knows what it’s like when you goof up.
“I know a lot of people would find this strange, but nobody feels worse when they leave the rink than our guys when they miss a call,” said Walkom, four months into his second stint as the NHL’s senior vice president and director of officiating. “Our guys want to be seamless in the game. Do their job. Go in and go out.”
Walkom donned the orange armband in NHL rinks more than 1,000 times from 1990-2005 and 2009-13, working some of the sport’s biggest moments, such as Stanley Cup Finals-deciding games and the Olympics, to uncomfortable moments, as when every pair of eyes at the United Center fixated on him after he waved off Niklas Hjalmarsson’s go-ahead goal with less than two minutes left in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals last season.
On Saturday, Walkom agreed to an interview with the Star Tribune to talk about officiating — particularly, how officials fine-tune throughout a season, how they’re evaluated and how it’s decided which officials work the longest in the playoffs.
Walkom, himself, brought up the high-sticking incident Thursday in San Jose when the Wild’s Zenon Konopka was incorrectly penalized four minutes. The Sharks’ Jason Demers took a stick to the face, but it was from his own teammate. San Jose extended its lead to 3-0 in an eventual 3-1 win.
“As much as [referee Marc Joannette] thought he saw something, it wasn’t as he thought he saw it,” Walkom said.
Often, there’s a supervisor of officials at games who evaluates the officiating performance upstairs, will act as a liaison between referees and the general manager (in the old days, coaches or managers commonly barged into the referee’s locker room after a game) and will meet with officials after the game.
“Ten minutes after the game, the guys are in the room and they deal with the issues that happened right there,” Walkom said. “You discuss them like men in an open forum.”
On Thursday, a supervisor wasn’t in San Jose, but before Walkom even followed up with Joannette the next day, “he already knew.”
“Guys on the ice, they don’t feel too good when you talk to them the next day,” Walkom said. “They get a little down. It’s only one call, but they’re not happy with themselves. We’re at the highest level, we’re expected to be perfect, which is impossible. It’s not that the guys aren’t pursuing it. And the guys are real pros, like Marc. He knows.
“Usually when they know they’ve made an error, and they don’t have a chance to admit to it, my guess is the next time [Joannette] sees Coach [Mike] Yeo, he’s going to let him know. Just man up. Humans make mistakes. We make mistakes, coaches make mistakes, players make mistakes all game every game, and a lot of what they do is they go over film on what they did well and what they need to do better. Our guys do the same thing.”
Lots of feedback
Every NHL official has an iPad. They have access to every game they officiate immediately after and are able to reference the good and the bad. In the NHL war room in Toronto, the hockey operations department views every game every night. Clips of the good and the bad are e-mailed to officials.
“The fine-tuning, the coaching, it’s ongoing. It’s constant,” Walkom said.
Every official takes weekly online rules tests. They do simulation tests where they have to make real-time game decision, and there are regular refreshers on rules and procedures.
Before every season, referees and linesmen go to Toronto for training camp. They do everything from crossfit training, to on-ice work to off-ice instruction, like maintaining consistent NHL standards with rules and their attitude, like “remembering they’re there for the players to give coaches respect,” Walkom said.
Back and forth
Wild players were upset with referee Steve Kozari in the same game against San Jose. Players say he was continually barking at players and coaches.
“We’re not out there to be argumentative, but there is a point in time where you need to draw the line,” Walkom said. “The players are angling to win the game at all times, and the only people at the rink at any given night who aren’t there to win are the officials. We’re the only guys with no skin in the game.
“I think our guys are pretty professional and pretty good. What happens is, there’s certain frustration levels within the game, if you’re losing right now you’re going to want to deflect a little. Steve is a professional, I know he is, and he’s got pretty good rapport with most of the players. They’re not going to be perfect.”
Just like players and coaches, the goal for every official is to work deep into the playoffs. Officials are constantly evaluated, and it’s more than just black and white.
“It’s their presence in a game, it’s their control in tough situations, it’s following the NHL standard, it’s the ability to keep up with the game physically,” Walkom said. “The evaluation is ongoing. At the end of the year, we put together the guys who we consider are performing the best to go into the playoffs. Then each and every round, it gets knocked out so we have our best team of officials in the Cup.”