ZURICH – Among the many successes of the Vancouver Olympics, hockey insiders counted the officiating as the best ever at a Winter Games. Aiming to repeat this in Sochi, the IIHF and NHL officiating committees came together recently for a seminar in Zurich.
Some of hockey’s top officiating minds were on hand for the seminar. Terry Gregson, the league’s Director of Officiating, headed the NHL contingent. Gregson’s position at the top of the NHL officiating ladder has helped the NHL and IIHF in streamlining the rulebooks for each organization. Gregson, a former NHL referee who has also worked in Europe, is a firm believer in the importance of communication and cooperation between the IIHF and the NHL.
“It was always one of my priorities when I got to the management side of things,” he said. “I think hockey officials worldwide are the same kind of people and they have a passion for the game. For the NHL, pro hockey isn’t just a North American thing anymore. We got guys out in places like Denmark and Austria working clinics and helping develop these programs by sharing their knowledge.”
The rulebooks for both leagues have been coming closer together in the past few years, through the efforts of Gregson and IIHF Officiating Manager Konstantin Komissarov.
Since Nagano, the inclusion of professional hockey players in the Olympics has raised issues regarding the rulebooks for the NHL and the international game. In the Winter Games and the World Championships, more and more NHL players have been coming back to play for their countries, which initially resulted in confusion with regard to the difference in rules.
Among Gregson’s contingent was former NHL referee Bill McCreary. With over 27 years of experience calling 1,737 regular season games, 297 playoff games, and 15 Stanley Cup finals in the NHL, McCreary’s officiating résumé is deep. He has also called gold medal games for three of the last four Winter Olympics.
McCreary emphasized that continued cooperation between the IIHF and the NHL has been integral in smoothing out the differences in the rules of the international and the North American game.
“I don’t think you can put a value on how important it is,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to work in 1998 in Nagano, the first Olympics that involved both professionals and amateur refs. The experience probably wasn’t that great for either side, however as we went forward to Salt Lake City we broke down a lot of barriers and we started to become one family and respect one another.”
Although issues arose in Nagano and Salt Lake City, Vancouver 2010’s hockey tournament featured 30 matches that went off without a hitch. Each of the games featured a blend of NHL and European referees and linesmen, and critics lauded the quality of officiating as near perfect.
“Mr. Fasel came to our room following the gold medal game,” said McCreary. “Everyone has a lot of respect for René, not only because he has been IIHF President for a long time, but also because he worked as a referee prior to that, so he knows what it’s like to go out on the ice and make tough decisions under extreme circumstances.
“He was very pleased with the quality of the officiating throughout the entire tournament.”
Looking to Sochi, the focus has switched from fair play issues, such as the rules governing obstruction, to issues related to player safety.
“We’re hoping to get on the same page when it comes to boarding and charging,” said Gregson. “Konstantin noticed at this year’s World Championships that there is a physical element to the game creeping in that they don’t want regarding body checking.”
“The IIHF is concerned players aren’t protecting themselves, and the speed of the game now is so great that it doesn’t take much of a hit to drive somebody into the boards. We’ve been dealing with it in the NHL for a couple of years so we decided it was time to come together again and see what we can learn and what the issues are.”
At the seminar, Gregson and Bill McCreary broke down specific situations and used video clips to show good end-ice positioning and different interpretations of difficult situations like boarding, charging, interference and how to quickly handle the penalty assessment. The presentation offered a fresh insight for the IIHF referees and supervisors who were on hand.
The officiating exchange has been fruitful for both sides. Last year, Marcus Vinnerborg became the first European to work an NHL game. For Gregson, Vinnerborg’s successful introduction the NHL and the success of Vancouver shows that good referees can come from anywhere.
“It’s all about performance and effort, not politics,” he said. “I watched [Vinnerborg] in Quebec City for the gold medal game [of the 2008 IIHF World Championship] where he gave Rick Nash a penalty for shooting the puck over the glass in overtime. Russia then scores and wins the gold medal. He showed me at that time that he had the courage to make a call like that.”
McCreary echoed Gregson’s comments applauding Vinnerborg’s efforts in his first year:
“I worked three times with Marcus last year and he’s doing very well,” he said. “He’s got a tremendous attitude and it’s important to remember that he had a lot of pressure on his shoulders. As the first European official to be hired full time he is representing all of Europe and all of the IIHF in North America. He carries a lot of weight on his shoulders, but I think he’s done well so far and will have a great career.”
McCreary also expressed optimism for an established officiating standard for the entire pro hockey world.
“As we go forward we’re always trying to learn from one another. We’re teaching each other and talking about training programs,” he said. “Looking on to Sochi I think it will be another positive experience.”