It’s a little more than an hour until warm-ups begin as Peggy Bohm, Bob Lundy and Tim Atwater sit down for their pregame meal.
The digital wall clock inside the officials’ dining room at Denver’s Pepsi Center ticks down the minutes until it’s time for the crew to push away from the table and take their places for the evening.
As they dine on soft-shelled tacos, the trio makes comfortable small talk like any group that has been together for a long time.
“Did you ever figure out how many years of USA Hockey we have between us?” Lundy asks.
“In centuries?” Bohm replies.
After some casual calculations, they figure the time they’ve spent behind the scenes as NHL off-ice officials amounts to nearly a century of experience.
It’s one reason why they continue to rush to the rink after leaving their day jobs behind. As Bohm says, “it’s the highlight of my day.”
This statement from the Evergreen Middle School teacher prompts others to say that she’s simply trading in one group of kids for another as she shifts gears from day job to night job.
“Big kids,” says Lundy.
“Old kids,” adds Atwater.
It’s representative of the easy rapport that comes from spending so many nights together over the course of so many years. As they eat, they rattle off old “war stories” that conjure up thoughts of long-forgotten teams, favorite players and memorable moments.
Lundy, Atwater and Bohm are three members of the 15-person crew who will be working this evening’s NHL game between the Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers.
Atwater, as penalty box timekeeper, and Bohm, who is a goal judge/spotter, will be at ice level, while Lundy will be perched upstairs in a booth as the supervisor/official scorer. As the clock ticks toward game time, they leave to finish the necessary prep work.
Off-ice officials are an extension of the officiating team that dons the stripes every night. From keeping track of shots on goal to keeping the peace in the penalty boxes to lending an extra set of eyes on disputed goals, off-ice officials are less visible than their on-ice compatriots but equally important in the operation of an NHL game.
As the puck drops, the scoring booth is abuzz with activity. Numbers are called out in an irregular cadence that sound like a nervous quarterback calling out signals:
“Nine to 26, 30 … Nope, 51, 32, 34.”
“Three? Yeah, three …82 …”
“82, 27 … Goalie.”
Meanwhile, seven pairs of eyes are fixed Meanwhile, seven pairs of eyes are fixed on the ice below. Even those logging information into computers seldom take their eyes from the action below. They can’t afford to. The action in an NHL game is so fast that if you blink you can miss a crucial play.
As players pour on and off the ice, it’s up to Carrie Ayala or John Sotak to keep track and monitor the changes. The new cast of characters on the ice is reflected on the computer screens of Laura Lippman and Jim Peter, who keep track of shots on goal, blocked shots and hits.
There’s no room for error. In today’s stat-driven world of professional sports, the slightest slip could cost a player a scoring title or an incentive bonus.
Just as team scouts place a premium on hockey sense, Lundy and his crew look for the same attributes when recruiting new members for their team. The way he looks at it, he can teach anyone to operate the computer software used to keep track of the statistical data, but he doesn’t have time to teach them the nuances of the game.
“We look for the expertise first because it’s hard to train hockey,” Lundy says. “To train somebody else in it, the speed, the accuracy that you need to have to work in that; it’s better to have a background first and then you can train the other issues after that.”
In the booth loaded with the latest gizmos and gadgetry, there are a few technological oddities that seem out of place. An older television and VCR combination that is more likely to be found at a garage sale are still used to record the game. On top of the television are empty VHS cases, which will be filled with tapes as the game goes on, one for each period, each one used for the purposes of reviewing goals and hits and shots and verifying the numbers of players on the ice after the play has already run its course.
Down the hall is the video review room, packed with state-of-the-art video equipment, high-definition televisions and phone lines that link the room to both ice level and the NHL offices in Toronto. Through the walls you can hear the play-by-play announcers in the booth next door.
“Our objective is to be the first line of defense of a goal that may have been missed,” says Doug Grebenc, who takes care of the technical stuff here in the video review booth. “That’s what we’re here for.”
Behind him are four monitors running four different video feeds, and to his left sits Gary Pedigo, whose eyes never leave the ice during a play. Although Grebenc is the technical guru, it’s Pedigo in his role as the video goal judge who makes the final call.
With just over a minute left in the second period, Florida’s Stephen Weiss picks up the puck, weaves his way through several Avalanche defenders before tumbling to the ice and crashing against goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, pushing in the puck as he flops to the side of the net.
Moments later, an announcer’s voice booms through the speakers: “The play is under review.”
Through the wall, the Avalanche announcers discuss the play: “As you’ve said many times Peter [McNab], the referee signals a goal, so if it’s under review, it has to be clear to be overruled by what the referee said.”
The replay booth is already in motion. With the eyes of the hockey world upon them, Pedigo slips on his headset and is directly linked in with the Toronto office. Grebenc, meanwhile, begins operating the digital feed that shows the play in a high-definition slow motion. Back and forth he manipulates the replay, watching Weiss slowly crash into the goal, frame by frame, looking to see whether the player has pushed in the puck with his glove.
Meanwhile, Brandon Shanahan, the NHL’s senior vice president of Player Safety slips into the room for a closer look. It’s hard to imagine feeling what sort of weight a pair of eyes like those must add to the pressure situation, but it doesn’t seem to have an effect on these men and their mission.
It’s not until additional footage from another broadcast feed comes through the monitors, a shot from behind, that the judges are convinced that the puck wasn’t guided by a hand but by the shaft of Weiss’ stick.
“It’s made a critical eye more important than anything else because people can watch everything that’s happening, and probably second-guess whatever’s happening, too,” Lundy says.
“It makes us work faster and pay more attention to what we have to do to get it right the first time. It’s so much faster now. There are more demands, the types of information that coaches want, that the league wants. It keeps growing.”
Over the course of its long and storied history, hockey has become a numbers game that transcends wins and losses, goals and assists, shots and saves. Night after night, for 82 games during the regular season, the insatiable appetite for information, from fans, scouts, coaches, media and even the players themselves, needs to be fed and it’s up to these off-ice officials to dish up this smorgasbord of raw statistical data.
Two hours and twenty-seven minutes after the puck has dropped, the game ends with an overtime goal by the Avs’ Ryan O’Reilly. Even before the players leave the ice and the celebration in the stands subsides, the crew begins the task of dismantling equipment, unplugging computers and storing cables.
Like the wizard behind the curtain, no one pays much attention to what they do. But it’s safe to say, after watching these off-ice officials in action, that they make the game go. They’re the reason that a goal can definitively be called a goal and that credit is given where credit is due.
They feed the engine that creates the box scores in the morning paper, the statistics behind the nightly highlight shows and the data that fuels local fantasy leagues. It’s a thankless job, but one that any off-ice official wouldn’t trade for anything.
Long after the fans file out of the arena and the surrounding parking lots empty, Lundy and his crew call it a night. They bid each other good-bye, and drive home to catch a few hours of sleep before resuming their lives as teachers, relators and financial analysts.
Photos By Michael Martin