NHL general managers put their heads together at the start of last week and figured out the next best thing for the league is, yep, more cameras. Cameras embedded along the boards at the blue lines. Cameras to make sure the linesmen get it right when judging whether pucks are on or offside.
Oh, boy. Smile, everyone!
When the puck drops for this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, 16 NHL rinks will be fitted with enough cameras to satisfy script requirements for a full season of “Person of Interest’’ episodes. Beware the machine, Mr. Reese.
Look, I know where the wired, gadgeted-up world is going. We’ll soon find it hard to determine what is artificial intelligence and what is the real McCoy. The world is also on the verge of unleashing driverless cars, which, being a lifelong motorist here in the Bay State, only makes me wonder why it took everyone so long to get with the program.
But adding more camera technology, and turning blue line calls into what amounts to a Mass. Pike E-ZPass tollbooth, is not my idea of making hockey great again. We’re splitting hairs here. When a coach issues a blue line/offside challenge, it’s tantamount to putting the puck on a lab slide and slipping it under a microscope. The game of skate, shoot, and pass has added another dimension — forensics.
There are two linesmen out there. All in all, they do a tremendous job, a point by the way I don’t believe anyone is arguing. And just as I’m willing to live with, shall we say, inconsistencies in home plate umpires calling balls and strikes, I’m OK if the guys in stripes are off an inch or two with their calls on plays that are 64 feet away from going in the net.
Through the middle of last week, with a grand total of 1,053 games played, there had been 69 coaching challenges on blue line calls. A total of 27 (39.1 percent) resulted in the linesmen’s calls being ruled incorrect and goals being wiped off the scoreboard because the play was indeed offside. In a league starving for offense, those lost goals hurt, but that’s a discussion (a lengthy one) for another day. Overall, with 27 errors recorded, we’re talking a fraction more than one — that’s one — play a week gone wrong.
Call me crazy, but I’m willing to live with the human element of officiating when it’s proven wrong roughly once a week on total number of offside calls that I’m not sure even astronomer Carl “Billions and Billions’’ Sagan could have quantified. If only the rest of my life was off by a mere inch or two about only once a week.
I understand striving for perfection, but if you’re taking out the hockey ruler, just make sure the net really measures 4 x 6 feet, the puck is 3 inches in diameter, and the boards open wide enough to wheel out the Zamboni. Then just drop the puck and let the boys play, the adults in stripes officiate.
Come with me now on the wayback machine to Oct. 26, 1980. It’s late in the third period at Winnipeg Arena and the Bruins have just blown a 6-4 lead with freshly minted Olympic hero Jim Craig in goal, the giant portrait of a smiling Queen Elizabeth hanging in the rafters.
The Jets have moved ahead on third-period strikes by Scott Campbell, Norm Dupont (not of the Globe Duponts), and Peter Marsh. It has been a dreadful road trip for rookie coach Gerry Cheevers’s charges, with humbling losses in Minnesota, Calgary, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Vancouver logged in the book.
But in the final minutes here comes the aged Wayne Cashman, sputtering down the slot like some soon-to-be-decommissioned battleship on its last gallon of fuel. Steve Kasper picks off a Moe Mantha pass, shovels a backhand dish to a breaking Cashman, and Cashman’s first shot forces a save from Jets goaltender Lindsay Middlebrook. A sleight-of-hand fraction of a second later, the red light is on and, lo and behold, it’s all tied, 7-7.
What happened? Well, I can tell you what it looked like from the press box and no one stifling giggles and grins in the Bruins’ dressing room cared to refute it. It appeared that the rebound popped into Cashman’s left hand and he summarily tossed the puck sidearm by Middlebrook and into the net.
The ever-affable and efficient Wally Harris, the lone referee, a man who never met a game he couldn’t move along fast enough, ruled it a good goal. In fact, ol’ Wally never blinked. There was no replay, no cameras, no nothing. Cashman from Kasper, 16:16, at even strength, provided no one counted Harris as the Bruins’ extra attacker.
“[Middlebrook] kicked it right back to me and then it was over the goal line,’’ a straightfaced Cashman said in the moments immediately after the game. “When the puck is over the goal line, it’s a goal. Wally called it the way he called the rest of the game and the fans didn’t object to that.’’
Oh, yes, the fans. A good number among the 15,190 were outraged and still chanting “bull-bleep, bull-bleep’’ as they exited the arena. As for the Bruins, their 0-5-1 roadie was in the books, no asterisk (thanks, Wally) attached.
I’m not sure that kind of anarchy, deliciously memorable as it was, would be great for the game if it happened regularly. I am sure calling timeouts, tying up the game, sometimes for minutes, for forensic scrutiny of plays at the blue line is not the way to go. Leave a camera or two around the net to help the referees figure if the puck went over the line, fine. In fact, great. All for it. Otherwise, let the officials call the game.
We should all want these guys to get the play right. Of course. But not at the expense of playing “gotcha’’ with the linesmen, robbing the game of its flow, often also of its emotion, and rendering hockey the dog being wagged by the technology’s everexpanding tail.