NHL ALL-STAR NOTEBOOK
TAMPA — Let’s go to the tape. But let’s not look too closely.
Such was the message NHL commissioner Gary Bettman delivered Saturday night, in his annual All-Star Weekend media briefing, when the topic turned to video review of goalie interference calls.
“I think we’ve gotten to the point,” noted Bettman, “where everyone is overthinking the reviews.”
This season, on average there has been about one goalie interference challenge each night in the NHL. In the majority of cases, roughly two-thirds, the call on the ice has been supported by the video. In 31 cases — about twice a week — the reviews have led to goals being taken off the scoreboard.
Not unlike the NFL, fans sitting at home and in the stands, as well as coaches and players in the middle of the action, watch the replays and can’t make head or tails of why a call on the ice stands or is overturned.
Bettman, following a meeting this weekend of general managers, coaches, league executives, and guys in stripes, said he believes it’s time to “give a refresher course to the officials.”
Translation: Go easy, boys, and maybe keep one eye closed.
“Take a good look,” said Bettman. “A quick look, but don’t search it to death.”
Easy to say, but what of those guys in stripes? They are being handed the gadgets, they are being told to scrutinize the play, but now they are being directed by Bettman to make it only a cursory review.
The exercise, noted Bettman, should not be to “search for something to overturn a call.”
Can a video review be just a little bit pregnant?
“The presumption should be that the call on the ice was good,” said Bettman, “unless you have a good reason to overturn it. You shouldn’t have to search to overturn it.”
Sounds like a good idea, but if that is the standard being applied, the league would be wiser to scrap the goalie interference reviews outright. The message is mixed: Detective, use all the forensics we’ve made available, but only pay attention if the conclusive evidence jumps off the screen and smacks that whistle out of your mouth.
What Bettman is proposing is a half-remedy to the problem. Either toss out goalie interference reviews entirely (hand up here) or allow the officials to work as currently charged, applying the rule book to what they see in the replay. Microscopic evidence is not just the nature of the beast, it is the beast.
The All-Star skills competition lasted a couple of hours on Saturday night. Six events that could have been wrapped up in maybe 40 minutes, but the NHL has turned it into a sprawling sponsorship event.
Consider how each event was billed:
■ Enterprise NHL Fastest Skater
■ Dunkin’ Donuts NHL Passing Challenge
■ GEICO NHL Save Streak
■ Gatorade NHL Puck Control Relay
■ PPG NHL Hardest Shot
■ Honda NHL Accuracy Shooting.
The NHL has resisted the urge to add corporate sponsorship logos to uniforms, but how far away can that be when giant mock bottles of Gatorade sub in for traffic cones during a puck control contest?
Sponsorship ads have been plastered along the boards for three decades-plus. The most obvious space for rent, left off the buy sheet thus far, remains the three red pipes that frame the net. The bet here is that they’re the next to go, plastered with national and local ads.
Ex-Bruin Willie O’Ree, who broke the NHL color line in January 1958, attended the All-Star festivities in his role as the league’s Diversity Ambassador.
Often referred to as the Jackie Robinson of hockey, O’Ree, now 82, twice met the Brooklyn Dodgers icon, the first time only two years after Robinson emerged from the Negro Leagues and integrated Major League Baseball.
O’Ree, at the age of 14, visited New York City with the baseball team from his hometown, Fredericton, New Brunswick. The trip was a reward for winning the town’s league championship. O’Ree was a standout second baseman/shortstop, skills that later earned him a tryout with the Milwaukee Braves.
“The reward was to see the Empire State Building, Radio City Music Hall, Coney Island,” mused O’Ree. “I got to meet Jackie Robinson for the first time . . . at Ebbets Field. I shook hands with him, and I told Mr. Robinson that I not only played baseball, but I played hockey.”
Robinson, recalled O’Ree, said he didn’t know any black kids played hockey.
“Yeah,” O’Ree told him that afternoon in 1949, “there’s a few.”
A dozen years later, O’Ree was playing minor league hockey for the Los Angeles Blades in the then-Western Hockey League. The LA chapter of the NAACP held a luncheon in Robinson’s honor at a local hotel and O’Ree, at the behest of Blades coach Bus Agar, was invited to attend with two teammates.
“So we go to the luncheon,” recalled O’Ree, who still has the printed invitation among his keepsakes. “Mr. Robinson is standing over in the corner, talking to some media people, and we’re just standing off on one side, waiting for him to finish.”
Once free, Robinson made his way over to the hockey players and Agar made the introductions, including the 24-year-old O’Ree, who had only recently joined the Blades less than a year after playing his final game with the Bruins.
“And Mr. Robinson turned and he looked at me,” recalled O’Ree, “put up his finger and said, ‘Willie O’Ree . . . aren’t you the young fella I met in Brooklyn?’ Now this was 1962, and that day in Brooklyn was 1949. That made a big impact. I mean, isn’t that something? When you think of the millions of people he met over the years, and he turns to me and says, ‘O’Ree . . . aren’t you the young fella . . . ?’ ”
Just a few years earlier, at age 20, O’Ree’s flirtation with pro baseball lasted but two weeks, after a tryout with the Braves in Waycross, Ga., just north of the Florida border.
Fearing what it would be like for a young Canadian black man to navigate his way alone in the Deep South in 1956, O’Ree’s parents advised him not to go. The youngest of 13 kids, O’Ree feared one day he would regret not taking the opportunity, so he boarded the flight to Atlanta.
“Off the plane into the terminal, the first thing I saw was, ‘White Only’ and ‘Colored Only,’ so I went into the colored restroom,” recalled O’Ree. “I had to stay in Atlanta overnight. I didn’t have a reservation [to Waycross]. So I spoke to a black cab driver out in front of the terminal and he took me to a hotel in an all-black neighborhood.”
Once in Waycross, O’Ree said he was assigned to a dorm with eight other players of color, and tried to turn a deaf ear to the “racial remarks by the white players,” would-be teammates, during his workouts.
“It didn’t bother me,” recalled O’Ree, “but I said to myself, ‘Ah, why in the hell did I ever considering coming down here?’ ”
Two weeks into his stay, O’Ree was cut, told by the coaches he needed “a little more seasoning” as they handed him a bus ticket home. Prospects get an airplane ticket to camp. The unsuccessful get a bus ticket and are told to hit the road.
“I’m five days on the bus,” recalled O’Ree, “and naturally I had to sit in the back of the bus. As were rambling up through the states, I started moving up in the bus, as we are getting up north. By the time we get to Bangor, Maine, I’m sitting right in the front of the bus — another 3½ hours, I think it was, and I am back in Fredericton. And I stepped off the bus and I said, ‘Willie, forget about baseball, concentrate on hockey.’ ”
Days later, Punch Imlach reached out to O’Ree and signed him to launch his pro hockey career with the Quebec Aces — the club in Quebec City where the Bruins ultimately found him and brought him to Boston.
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