When you’re in charge of NHL officials and officiating, it would seem that a sense of humor is a job requirement. So really, it’s not all that surprising when, while starting to talk about the NHL’s recruitment of officials, Stephen Walkom goes for the punch line.
“Well, we go to the prisons and we say, ‘Hey, who’s getting out . . . ’ ” Walkom began.
Not quite. But the NHL is doing its best to find new officials, trying to expose current players from the midget level to college and juniors to the possibilities that come with donning the stripes. Although Walkom had made inroads in his first tenure as head of officiating from 2005-09, the program he began last year — the NHL Exposure Combine (and NHL Amateur Exposure Combine) — goes further. It starts by asking, what’s next?
“This time around we built a website, we did a video,” said Walkom, the NHL’s senior vice president and director of officiating. “We made it exciting. It’s like a recruitment video. I mean, it’s not the army, but we wanted to make officiating [enticing]. We know the guys that would be good at it. We just needed to get them to try it.”
The videos are slickly produced, featuring luminaries such as Brendan Shanahan, Ed Olczyk, and Mike Cammalleri urging the idea on the target audience — players who are aging out of hockey, players without the skills to play at a higher level but who retain a love for the game.
Trying out officiating, the video suggests, would allow those players to use their knowledge and passion for the game when they would otherwise be shedding their skates and finding jobs in the real world.
“We need the athletes,” Walkom said. “We need the guys that are great skaters. And we need people that want to serve the game before they get out of shape. Every league needs people like that. So instead of sitting back and hoping that it happens, we’re making sure that it does happen.”
This year’s four-day combine, the second of its kind, kicked off on Thursday at Buffalo’s HarborCenter and ends on Sunday. As part of an every-other-year plan, this year the combine’s focus is on midget players, getting the idea of officiating into the heads of players between 15 and 18 years old, players who might never have even considered the possibility. Next year, the combine will return in its other form, focusing on Division 1, Division 3, CHL, and CIS players.
There had been a system for development of officials in place, Walkom said, but not a permanent one. So he set out to build that.
“What we’ve found is that most of [the best officials] grew up with a passion to play the game and they were athletic, they played other sports, and they’re great skaters and they fell into officiating,” Walkom said. “Did they grow up wanting to officiate? No. They probably grew up thinking, like any good hockey player or coach would, that the officials get in the way of winning.”
So they set out to change minds. The NHL now brings college players in, first putting them through background checks and determining if they’re the right sort of people to mediate on the ice, and allows them to interact with the league’s top official prospects. They test them on the ice. They put them in classrooms. They have them play games, and have them officiate those games.
“Introduce them to it, so that before they get out of shape, before they hit the beer league, they realize that there’s a real need for guys like them,” Walkom said.
Even if it’s years down the road.
Walkom is looking long term with this plan. He knows those 15-year-olds at the HarborCenter might have 3-7 years of hockey left. They might become pros. They might not. They might finish college and wonder about their next move. He hopes they think of him. Or at least the job opportunities he is offering.
Walkom wants to see them come to the combine as a midget, then as a college player, then as a prospect, then as a minor league official. He wants to see his recruits climb the ladder.
It was back in his officiating days, working nearly 965 regular-season games and 139 playoff games, that he first started honing his pitch.
“When I was on the ice all the time, I’d always kid around with the players, ‘Hey, you know when you’re done you can always put on the band and get out here and blow the whistle,’ ” Walkom recalled. “And they’d be always like, ‘I’d never want to do that, Walks.’
“Not too many people out there have ever officiated. So when you’ve never done it, it’s hard to really appreciate what the guys on the ice make look easy. And so I’m hoping we can mold some young midget hockey players into at least considering officiating when they’re done playing. If we can get some of these college and university and junior kids to get into the mix, it can only help improve officiating everywhere.”
Axelsson settles into scouting role
P.J. Axelsson was not out of work for long. It was just a couple of months after the Swedish forward stepped off the ice in the spring of 2013 that he found himself back in hockey rinks across Europe, trading in his playing days for scouting.
In those two years as a European scout for the Bruins — the team for which he played all of his 11 NHL seasons — Axelsson learned quite a bit, from how to evaluate the talent that might eventually play in Boston to how to book hotels and flights. There used to be someone doing the latter for him.
“That was hard in the beginning,” Axelsson said. “I’m not a computer guy, I can tell you that much. But I had to learn.”
Axelsson has also learned how to be a more effective scout.
“I’m a little bit more relaxed, I think,” he said. “In the beginning, any time anything new comes up, you want to do it right away. Now you can kind of sit back a little bit, think about it a little more.”
He also has a better understanding of what to look for in potential Bruins. As he put it, “their hockey sense, how they move on the ice, why and when they move. It’s a learning thing and I’m still learning.” He sees about 170 games a year, usually at least three to five a week, honing his eye for talent.
The Bruins brought Axelsson in for their development camp in July, using him as an on-ice instructor. He was able to see the fruits of his labor with some of the players he had scouted in Europe, and others he had only heard about before.
He even got a chance to be on the coaching staff of one of the teams in the camp’s final-day scrimmage. “I lost as a coach, so I’m probably done there,” he said.
Axelsson, who also has dabbled in TV work, is content to work at improving as a scout. He appreciates the Bruins’ approach to evaluating players, the communication that he has had with other scouts, and with assistant general manager Scott Bradley, director of amateur scouting Keith Gretzky, and ex-teammate and now-Bruins general manager Don Sweeney.
“P.J.’s got a passion for the game,” Sweeney said. “He’s a great communicator with everybody, was really good even speaking with Joonas [Kemppainen] when he was over there, all of our European [draft picks]. He wears a kind of dual hat with being an amateur scout but also being a bit of a development person as well for us in Europe.
“Obviously I know him very well personally, so we have a good relationship for him to tell me one thing if I’m leaning in one direction and he can direct it back in the other. He’s just really good and he’s passionate about it.”
Though he has yet to see many of his charges make it to the NHL — it’s too early for most of them — there is one who Axelsson watched reach his goal in the last year: David Pastrnak.
With Pastrnak playing in Sweden, Axelsson saw him a lot before he was drafted by the Bruins, along with the rest of the team’s scouting staff and front office. He had seen impressive things from Pastrnak. “He’s a really good skater with good hands. I like his skill set. And his drive. He wants to be a hockey player. That’s important,” said Axelsson.
Still, Axelsson didn’t foresee Pastrnak’s success as an 18-year-old rookie in the NHL. “I was a little surprised,” he said. “It’s not easy to come in and play in the NHL at that age, that’s for sure. He did a really good job preparing himself for it.”
Pastrnak’s rapid rise won’t be the last surprise that Axelsson encounters in his current role with the Bruins. He has settled in, has learned when it’s appropriate to drive his car through the night to scout a player, and when it’s appropriate to spend that night at a hotel instead. He has learned to book flights and evaluate talent. And he’s enjoyed all of it.
“I’ve had a lot of fun,” Axelsson said. “I haven’t missed the game that much because I went right back into the game. I didn’t miss playing. That really helped. That’s probably the main thing. But I mean, just being around the rink, that’s been my whole life. That’s where I want to be.”
Kemppainen gets early education
Although Joonas Kemppainen wasn’t able to take the ice during the Bruins’ development camp in July, it wasn’t a lost week for the Finnish veteran. He got to meet potential teammates, coaches, and those in the front office who enabled him to come from Finland to the NHL. One of Kemppainen’s goals for the week was to “make a good first impression.”
This is not the first go-around for the Bruins in bringing over mid-career veterans from Europe and integrating them into their team and locker room. They did the same with Carl Soderberg, who came to the NHL toward the end of the 2012-13 season, playing in six regular-season games and two in the playoffs. He was 27 years old then, the same age as Kemppainen now. General manager Don Sweeney said the team learned “in little ways” from the Soderberg experience, ways that they’re now putting into place with Kemppainen.
“Because Carl came over, wasn’t sight unseen in terms of where his conditioning level was,” Sweeney said. “So I think it’s another tool, analytic tool, in the person himself. We know his game, but the person himself, how he’s going to take his own personality and now put it into a completely unfamiliar situation.”
Easing the transition is even more important for a mid-career veteran, as opposed to a 20-year-old still on his way up. Most of who and what Kemppainen is has already been determined. With Soderberg, it was clear that he didn’t settle into his game until midway through the 2013-14 season, taking off at that point.
“The player himself is somewhat defined at that age,” Sweeney said. “That’s why I say we know the player. They should be more confident. You talk to Joonas and he says this is the player I think I am and can be. If he exceeds that, great.
“He’s got to get on the ground running. He really does. He has to get here and fit in because there’s a shorter window for them at the age they are to come in and make the transition.”
That transition, of course, includes a foreign country, a smaller rink, new coaching and front office staffs, and new teammates. So that’s why bringing Kemppainen to the team’s development camp was so important. There’s little time and much to do.
“They’re a little older, so they should be a little more comfortable in their own skin, but it’s still an element of the unknown of how things are done that I think it just erases that,” Sweeney said. “They come in, they get the lay of the land, they come back. I think everybody sort of stares at your toes a little bit unless you’re just a real, real confident person. I think that takes that away, breaks it down. That’s really the impetus behind it.”
Thornton makes post-career plans
Shawn Thornton is smart enough to know where the game is going. Although the former Bruins forward will remind you that he is more than just a fighter, he will also acknowledge that there are fewer players against whom to ply his trade.
Thornton, 38, had just six fights last season, according to hockeyfights.com, his fewest since 2005-06, when he had two fights in 10 NHL regular-season games. That was generally because there was no one willing to drop the gloves with him.
As Thornton heads into the second and final year of his deal with the Panthers, he isn’t sure what the future holds, though he did get a glimpse into a possible future during the postseason when he served as a guest analyst on NBC Sports for two games.
“That was an experience,” Thornton said last Monday at his Putts and Punches for Parkinson’s golf tournament. “I liked it. I really liked it. Second night probably a little better than the first, a little bit more settled in. A little nerve-racking, I’m not going to lie to you. I didn’t go to broadcasting school, so a little different when the cameras are right on you.”
TV work, he said, is the plan for his post-playing career, perhaps along with some radio. The affable, plain-spoken Thornton should be a good fit for the role, especially after he gets a little distance from the game. But he’s not guaranteeing that the post-playing days will start after this season.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m OK either way. I’m going on my 19th year pro, I think, and for my job, I’m very happy with what’s happened over my career and I’m OK if I have to shut ’er down. If I have a tough year and that’s it, then so be it, but if I happen to have a good year and things work out and somebody wants to give me a paycheck for another year, I’m more than happy to [continue playing].
“I love competing, I love staying in shape, I love the game, and I love being around the guys,” added Thornton. “So I’ve said it before, I’ll play until they rip the skates off me.”
OK with getting an assist
According to Stephen Walkom, officials welcome the rule change that brings a coach’s challenge to goalie interference, as well as offsides that leads to a goal.
“People don’t realize the referee probably makes at least 10 decisions relative to goaltender interference during a game: Did the goalie get bumped? Was it incidental contact? Did he get reset? Was it in the blue? Was it in the white? Was it intentional? Did he get pushed?” Walkom said. “It’s dynamic as anything.”
Walkom said that last season there were eight plays when the officials would have negated a goal had they been able to see it again. He said there were an additional two disallowed goals that should have been allowed.
“I see this year, if challenged, our guys getting those right,” Walkom said. “Those sort of egregious glaring errors that from the official’s view the first time around he got wrong and now if challenged he’s going to be able to get right.
“I see the next generation of officials coming along where huddling and correcting themselves becomes the norm. That wouldn’t have always happened 10, 15 years ago. Guys would be stubborn, wouldn’t want to admit when they’re wrong. But in this day and age with video technology, you’re going to have that. This season I think is an exciting development, another tool for our guys and something that can only help the game.”
Final four ... finally?
The Maple Leafs made a serious statement this offseason by bringing in a coach (Mike Babcock) and general manager (Lou Lamoriello) with extensive winning backgrounds. Toronto has reached the playoffs just once in the last 10 seasons, and among active franchises has the eighth-longest drought for reaching the conference finals.