There are a lot of people in the press box at any given game. Obviously you've got the press guys such as Daver Karnosky of the Daily Mining Gazette and Dirk Hembroff of WKMJ. There's also all of the team personnel, media relations staff, production staff, inactive players and the replay operator.
When Tech played against LSSU, there were two extra people up there who aren't normally in the box: I was one of them (THG doesn't actually have any writers in Houghton), and I got to sit next to Greg Shepherd, the Supervisor of Officials for the WCHA. I asked him for an interview and he obliged.
Shepherd, who has been with the WCHA for 40 years, is the only Supervisor of Officials. He's been with the men's program for 22 years, as well as with the women's program since it was founded 17 years ago. He's a recognizable face to a lot of behind-the-scenes types of folks. As we started our interview, stadium announcer Mitch Lake walked by and asked, "Shepherd how are you?"
"Good," Shepherd replied. "How are you?"
"Get enough penalties last night?"
That drew a bit of a laugh from everyone in earshot. As the Supervisor of Officials, Shepherd's job has a few facets. The most obvious is that he watches the referees on the ice and takes notes about how they call the game, both the good and the bad. He talks to the officials before the game about what to watch for and after the game about how it went. He also talks with the coaches to hear their concerns and to talk to them about what the officials will be looking for.
Most of the conversations have to do with things like where linesmen should position themselves, areas of emphasis (more on that later), faceoff procedures, and how consistently and correctly they call things like offsides and icing. All through the game, he takes notes on a pad so he can make sure that everything he says is what he actually saw, and not just a vague recollection.
If he ever goes to talk to the officials in the middle of the game, then it's a sure bet that something isn't quite right. Readers may recall that on that Saturday night, a whole string of penalties against LSSU included a call of "interference with significant contact." That didn't sit quite right with Shepherd. "Significant contact? What does that even mean? Can you ask them to confirm that that's what the guys on the ice said?" he asked the replay operator. When the buzzer sounded, Shepherd went down to the officials' locker room. When he came back, he explained that it was a new rule in the rule book for that year and he had forgotten about it, but that the officials on the ice were right to call it.
Of course Shepherd can't be everywhere at once, so he always has his phone with him. Whenever another game ends or when something really significant occurs elsewhere in the league, it rings. Officials give a quick check-in after each game to discuss how they felt it went and advise him of any major situations in the game that they think he should know about. At the end of the weekend, it's back to the Twin Cities, where he spends the first half of the week watching film of every crew he didn't see during the week, then he spends the second half of the week talking with the officials about what he saw. It's also worth noting that when he can, he'll go to two different cities each weekend to catch as many different crews as possible.
I asked him what he was looking for with these areas of emphasis, and he was very quick to respond: they're looking at hooking and holding as well as goaltender interference. Each of those has a bit of a system of evaluation. He described the process for holding rather simply. "When a player takes his hand off the stick, and you see him going into the end boards, he'll come in and put his hand on the player; that's holding."
He also had a very clear explanation of how they make a hooking call. "A stick goes up (he gestured picking a stick up off the ice), the referee's antenna goes up. When it's turned and you hook the hands, that's gotta be called. Just like the NHL; that's what they want called."
"Obstruction, where a player coming in the zone shoots the puck. Now a player, a D, can hit him right away. But if he shoots the puck and starts this way and the D takes him out, (that's a second action from the shooter and) that's interference (by the defender)."
All of these areas of emphasis are things they talk about with the coaches and they're generally established before the season begins. Readers might remember back to the first few weekends of the season when Mel Pearson expressed frustration in interviews about the number of holding, hooking and interference calls. All of those are the same areas of emphasis for this season that Shepherd described.
I asked Shepherd about the feedback he was getting from coaches, and he said it was on both sides. Some coaches thought the league was over-calling while some thought that it was absolutely fine and the players should be expected to adapt. It was all part of a balance between keeping the game flowing and keeping the student-athletes safe.
While these things are decided every year before the season, Shepherd suggested that he'd like to see some improvements going forward in communicating them with media and the fans. By his thinking, a conference call to discuss those things with the media would make things "easier on everybody."
Regardless, these areas of emphasis are all about returning to a standard of play that was set up across the league in 2004. Over the years, officials let a little more go each season until last season saw a peak of "let them play" attitudes in the WCHA (an attitude that Shepherd noted was something that Tech in particular wanted). The increase in calls this year is trying to return to that original standard, and keep players safe on the ice.
Next time you watch a game, watch the officials. See where they position themselves. Turn a critical eye to what they're calling as a penalty. Think about the areas of emphasis. Somewhere, Greg Shepherd will be watching the same thing you are, and you can be sure that those are the first thing on his mind.
Feature Image courtesy of Bob Gilreath