Can helmet cameras improve NHL referee performances? (Video)

Nicholas J. Cotsonika

DETROIT -- Watch this. Look through an official’s eyes. See the puck coming up the boards, Justin Abdelkader flying past. Imagine trying to keep up with the play and scan for rules violations as Abdelkader collects the puck in the corner and the Detroit Red Wings end up scoring against the Chicago Blackhawks. 

Different, isn’t it?

Your point of view isn’t a fixed position above the ice – a seat in the stands when you’re at the rink, a camera on a tripod when you’re watching on television. It’s moving. It’s on ice level. It isn’t detached; it’s in the thick of the action.

The NHL put GoPro cameras on the front of officials’ helmets to record that perspective twice last preseason (both in Toronto) and twice this preseason (in Buffalo and Detroit). It wasn’t for promotional purposes. It was for internal training.

The officials don’t like wearing the cameras – mounted with adhesive, blacked out with gaffer tape. But the cutting-edge footage is for education and improvement.

“You never really know what you’re going to get from it,” said Tom Masters, video manager, NHL officiating. “But hopefully there’s some teachable moments in there you can use going forward.”

The referees and linesmen consider themselves a team. They have to work together not just in groups of four, but as a larger group to enforce consistent standards across the league. Problem is, they aren’t together often. They hold a training camp each September and then scatter across North America. They held an extra mini-camp last season during the Olympic break.

The NHL uses video at camp. But the league also sends video electronically throughout the season for officials to watch on their own, going over certain situations, emphasizing certain points.

“We use video a lot when it comes to keeping the team on the same page,” Masters said.

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There is normal game footage. There is footage Masters shoots with a handheld camera at ice level, isolating on officials, usually in Toronto. And now there is the preseason GoPro footage, which provides the sights an official will actually see and the sounds he will actually hear.

“A lot of it is just, ‘What are we doing on faceoffs?’” Masters said. “‘What’s a good faceoff? What’s not a good faceoff? How are we communicating with the players when they’re in the faceoff circle?’ ”

Last week in Buffalo, the GoPro cameras captured the enforcement of a new rule: After an icing, if a player from the defending team causes a faceoff violation to buy time to rest, he will not be kicked out. He will be warned. If he causes another violation on the same faceoff, he will receive a minor penalty.

“I’ve looked at the footage, and it looks great,” Masters said. “It’ll be a nice way of showing the guys, ‘Hey, here’s that new rule in action.’ ”

If only we could see through the officials’ eyes. We might have more respect for the difficulty of their jobs, and …

Well, wouldn’t you want to see and hear this? The officials were wearing GoPro helmets for the Buffalo-Toronto preseason game last year when Sabres enforcer John Scott went after Leafs sniper Phil Kessel, Kessel swung his stick at Scott and David Clarkson left the Toronto bench.

“That was a bit of a crazy game,” Masters said, smiling. “We got some great footage.”