Officials off to great start, but know true tests to come

PITTSBURGH -- It has not been an easy birth. But if we accept that what has transpired in a few short months amounts to a rebirth of the National Hockey League, then the referees and linesmen are the game's midwives helping to deliver the sport back to relevancy.

Quite simply, all of the feel-good stories, the attendance records, the often frenetic product on the ice, are but a whisper, a dream, without the referees and linesmen.

Will you ever see a player put his arm around a referee's shoulder, thanking him for making the game better as he heads to the penalty box for hooking down an opponent?

Ha, ha, ha. No. But it would be entirely appropriate.

Is it perfect? No. Some nights, it's far from perfect.

And it's going to get tougher. But it is a minor miracle that so much has been accomplished in such a short period of time.

"I'm pleased with where we've come from and where we're at. And I know our work is ahead," head of officiating and longtime NHL referee Stephen Walkom said. "Nobody thought this was going to be easy."

It's two hours before game time at Mellon Arena in downtown Pittsburgh and Chris Lee's gear has just arrived from the airport. Clammy and damp from the previous night's game in Philadelphia, it's still better than the alternative, which is to call Walkom, who lives outside Pittsburgh, and borrow his gear or ask the Flyers, who occupy the dressing room next door, if he can borrow an extra pair of skates.

The notion prompts a couple of wry jokes in the cramped cubbyhole that serves as the dressing room occupied by the four-man team that will administer this night's game.

Lee and his partner, veteran referee Paul Devorski, along with linesmen Dan Schachte and Jean Morin, who has flown in from his home on Long Island. Lee, Devorski and Schachte are 24 hours removed from a wild and wooly affair in Philadelphia, won 6-5 by Atlanta in overtime after a rash of late Philadelphia penalties. (The Flyers were unhappy with the way Friday's game played out, quietly complaining about a non-call on a hook on Simon Gagne that ultimately cost the Flyers the game.)

In spite of some good-natured banter, there is an underlying seriousness regarding the task at hand. The crew tonight is determined to deliver the same level of work on this night. Such consistency is the fulcrum on which the often wildly exciting new product is precariously balanced.

"I don't think you could make this work without that consistency. It's like if you called offsides one night and the next night you didn't," said Schachte, a native of Madison, Wis., who joined the NHL's officials fraternity in July 1982.

With the new rules and new standards of enforcement on obstruction fouls, much has been written and discussed regarding the learning curve of players and coaches who have had to unlearn years of learned behavior.

Now imagine having called 1,000 or 1,500 NHL games as a referee or linesman and being told that everything you knew, everything that had become instinctual, was no longer acceptable.

"I tell you, it's not easy, this new way of thinking," Devorski admitted over a cup of coffee before the game. "We have to dig down tonight and not slip back into our old practices."

Such slips happen. But there is an understanding that those mistakes don't just cost the officials involved, but all of the league's 67 full-time on-ice officials.

"If you let something go, it falls to the guys working the second [or next] game to clean up the mess," Lee said.

The adjustment has been especially difficult for officials like Devorski, who was known as a "player's" referee, tending to call fewer penalties in the old NHL.

"I think it's a big change for a lot of the senior guys. It's like starting all over again," said the native of Guelph, Ontario, whose younger brother Greg is an NHL linesman.

Every time a stick leaves the ice surface and becomes parallel to the ice, referees have had to intuit that a player is no longer going for the puck, but is positioning himself for a possible foul.

A defender takes one hand off his stick and another red flag goes up in officials' minds because history suggests that player is going to use that hand to grab a chunk of an opposing forward's jersey or his stick.

"That's a red flag," said Lee, 35, who refereed his first NHL game in 2000.

He admits that the first few weeks of the season were nerve-wracking trying to adjust on the fly.

"I'm much more relaxed than I was in Game 1," he said.

Linesmen, too, have had to relearn their craft.

Two-line passes through the neutral zone are now live. Passes that would have been called icing are now, depending on the linesmen's discretion, live.

Offsides plays that would have been blown dead are now kept alive with the tag-up rule.

All of these plays occur in the blink of an eye. All have the potential to change the course of a game, a season.

"The trick is to visualize and react," Schachte said. "You don't want to be thinking."

Of course, that means visualizing and reacting to a whole new set of circumstances.

"Jean and I had probably seen every play 100 times and we just reacted. Now, we change a bunch of rules and there are situations we haven't seen in our mind. That was hard for the first month," said Schachte, who has called more than 1,500 NHL games and whose assignments include the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and the 2002 Olympics.

For referees whose nightly work is most-widely criticized by coaches, players and the media, the mental part of the game goes like this: If you say to yourself, that's not that bad, "that's the trigger. That's telling you that's a hook," Devorski said.

The referees' challenge has been to internalize what is now a foul, as well as forget the long-held notion that the game's situation also dictates how the game is going to be called. In the past, calls made in the first and second periods were different from those made in the third. Calls made in a midseason game would be different than calls made in a playoff game. Referees were loath to make calls in overtime or late in the third period unless the fouls were of the most flagrant variety. They talked of calling "good penalties." Everyone, from coaches to players to league officials, accepted it would be so.

Now the foul is the thing, first minute of the game, last minute of the game, overtime. And if the league has its way, it will be so in mid-April, and in mid-June, when the next Stanley Cup champion is crowned.

"Now, if it's a penalty, it's a penalty. If it's not, it's not," Morin said.

"It's a new culture from where we were and where we came from. It's now light years apart," Schachte added. "That wasn't what anybody wanted to see. We've done an about-face."

To try and make what is a dramatic change more seamless, Walkom has brought linesmen and referees together as a single unit as opposed to twin entities that intersected at game time and then dispersed.

"The big thing is that we needed to optimize the four-man system," Walkom said. "One way to do that was to get everybody working together each and every game."

The four working this game in Pittsburgh say they have never seen the officiating brotherhood more unified.

In the past, linesmen and referees were "kind of separate," Schachte said. They received different e-mails and memos from the league than the referees. They traveled in a different pattern.

"We didn't really know what was going on the other side," he said.

Now, the crews work together on a more consistent basis, creating a greater sense of teamwork. There are general missives from the league that all officials see. Everyone is in on the same conference calls.

"Our whole group is just so much closer," Schachte said. "It's so much healthier. Right from training camp, we came out of there feeling like a million bucks. I see everybody doing the same thing. Never in my 24 years have I seen it like this."

Devorski, for instance, didn't know Lee at all, but is in the midst of a stretch of 10 straight games with the native of St. John, New Brunswick. Such familiarity is crucial to familiarity on the ice, which is crucial to consistency of game calling.

"If you and I are meshing, the game goes fairly smoothly," Devorski said. If not, then there are two referees that are out of sync, two officiating teams out of sync, "and two coaches that don't know what's going on. It's great when you see two arms go up [to call a penalty]."

For officials, there is no scoreboard that reflects their performance. In the past, the league would send out video e-mails when an official was deemed to have missed something. Now, all game officials receive a DVD of their game for self-critique. An officiating manager watching the game live or on television can also direct an official to an area he thinks needs to be addressed. As well, the league also provides officials with DVDs featuring live footage and weekly updates "to keep everyone sharp," Walkom explained.

"They don't keep score for us [every night], but you've got to do your best every night," Schachte said. "There's not much else out there that gets you 2½ hours of cutthroat competition like a hockey game. You can't do this job without that passion."

Passion is one thing; a thick skin and a healthy sense of self are also important qualities.

"Someone doesn't need to tell you because in our hearts we know, I screwed up or I could have done that differently. We didn't get to this level by being complacent," Lee said. "We all got here different ways. But the common trait is that we're our own best critics."

"I'm tough on myself," added Devorski, who was recently selected to call the Olympic tournament in Turin in mid-February. "We have a lot of sleepless nights if we know we've missed one or two calls."

On this night, Pittsburgh super rookie Sidney Crosby flops to the ice, drawing a Philadelphia penalty. During the ensuing television timeout, Gagne slides up to Devorski and puts his arm loosely around his back. The two are smiling.

"I kind of reminded him that maybe it was a little bit like last night. He started laughing," Gagne said.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.