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Inside the NHL | Helene Elliott / ON THE NHL

He's Always on Official Business

October 29, 2002|Helene Elliott

Andy VanHellemond, the NHL's director of officiating, calls himself "the coach of the 84 officials" who referee or work the lines at league games.

And like a good coach, he knows the ultimate reward for those he oversees is ice time. That means if any officials don't adhere to the new standards for calling obstruction fouls, VanHellemond has an answer.

"I have 12 American Hockey League officials chomping at the bit," he said. "Unless an official wants to go to work in the AHL to learn how to do it, they're going to do it. I don't want to have to do that, and I think we can all do this right."

Regarded as one of the NHL's top referees during most of his 25-year career, VanHellemond spent four years working for the East Coast Hockey League before returning to the NHL as an executive for the 2000-01 season. When the NHL phased in the two-referee system for every game, he helped reeducate officials who had previously worked alone and instinctively followed the puck but missed other infractions.

Having two sets of eyes to look for the clutching and grabbing that has bogged down the game is making the crackdown effective. Being sure the on-ice officials divide responsibility and see as much of the action as possible has helped, too.

"If both were looking at the puck, they weren't looking at the players who didn't have the puck, and that's where the most trouble is," VanHellemond said. "It's taken a year or two to change that thought process. They have to be accountable and responsible.

"The puck does move quick, and the game has gotten quicker. The transition is so much quicker, and now a team will break out three on one, rather than two on one, because the player who used to get tangled up is now free to join the rush. There are fewer players tackling and mugging in front of the net too."

He also said officials have been given firm definitions of obstruction, leaving no gray areas. VanHellemond reviews tapes of every game and sends clips to admonish those who miss calls, but he won't immediately condemn anyone.

"I'll say, 'I know it's easier to see from video,' " he said. "Unless you've been on the ice, you don't know how quick someone can cut in front of you and block your view of something. With the size of some defensemen and players, you've got to move around them and past them."

VanHellemond will issue report cards to the officials Nov. 23 and then every 20 games or so. No lapses will be tolerated from officials, he said, either within games or late in the season, when officiating traditionally gets looser.

"We expect referees to be the same from Minute 1 through Minute 60, and throughout the season," he said. "Overall, things have been good. I think the players understand what we're trying to do and are buying into it."

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Lemieux Still the Best

Encouraged by a fast start in which he has averaged more than two points a game, Pittsburgh Penguin captain and owner Mario Lemieux is facing the first real test of his stamina.

Lemieux, 37 and three seasons into his comeback from retirement, played consecutive games Friday and Saturday, for the first time this season, and had two assists in each game. But now comes the tough part: The Penguins' game against Washington on Monday was the third in a sequence of four games in six nights, and that grueling stretch should give him a good read on the status of his balky back and troublesome hip. It didn't help matters Monday when Lemieux took a puck in the mouth and needed 25 stitches. In true Lemieux fashion, he returned to score the decisive goal in the Penguins' 3-2 victory

Last season, Lemieux missed all but 24 games last season because of hip problems but said he intends to play as close to a full season as he can.

His timing couldn't be better. The obstruction he long complained about is vanishing, leaving him better able to capitalize on his strength and still-remarkable skills.

"There's still not much room, because teams are playing sound defense," he said during a conference call with reporters. "They all have pretty good systems defensively. But for sure, you're able to skate a little bit more freely and that's making the game a lot faster. The speed of the game has improved quite a bit so far in the first couple of weeks. For that reason, there's a lot more scoring chances.

"I truly believe it's going to stay like that for the whole year. I think the league is seeing a big improvement in the way the game is being played. I'm sure they're going to keep it that way, hopefully forever, [and] bring back the game we had in the '70s and '80s, where it was pretty much a skating game, puck movement, the give-and-go. I think that's back in the game now. It's great to see."

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