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He’s Always on Official Business

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.”

Switching from his helmet to his owner’s hat, he said the Penguins are awaiting the outcome of state elections to determine whether they will get government help in financing the construction of a new arena. The Mellon Arena, better known as the Igloo, is aging rapidly and lacks the bells and whistles new arenas can offer. The Pittsburgh Pirates got a new stadium and the Philadelphia Phillies will move into a new home next year, both built in part with taxpayer money.

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Getting a new arena, Lemieux said, “is very important for us to be successful in the future, to stay viable. Our point of view hasn’t changed in the last couple years. We’re still working very hard to be ready when we have to go to the state and city and county. We need a new facility just to remain competitive with the rest of the market.”

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Fleury on the Mend

Theo Fleury, suspended indefinitely by the NHL Oct. 8 for violating terms of his substance-abuse aftercare program, has resumed working out. However, it’s not clear when he will return to the Chicago Blackhawks.

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General Manager Mike Smith recently told the Chicago Tribune that Fleury “seems to be doing OK,” and that’s good news. But the question remains why the Blackhawks let the dependable and prolific Tony Amonte leave as a free agent last summer and signed Fleury, who comes with a full set of emotional baggage.

Personal problems put Fleury on a roller coaster last season while he played for the New York Rangers, and his erratic behavior meant they couldn’t count on him consistently. Too many aggressive penalties -- not to mention a run-in with the San Jose Sharks’ mascot -- were signs he was struggling to control his emotions. Too often, he lost the battle and as a result, hurt the team.

The Blackhawks helped Bob Probert through a treatment program and figured they could guide Fleury through his problems. That’s admirable, but Fleury apparently is still seeking equilibrium. And even if he can return to the lineup soon, Fleury, who signed a two-year, $8-million contract, isn’t going to help the Blackhawks in the long term. Amonte would have been a far better investment, but the Phoenix Coyotes grabbed him for $24 million over four years.

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Slap Shots

Kudos to the Minnesota Wild, the team that was expected to suffer the most as a result of the obstruction crackdown because it relied so heavily on defense and slowing the tempo of games. Coach Jacques Lemaire has done a fine job of making sure his players abide by the new standards, and he has created a good environment for the development of forward Marian Gaborik, a budding superstar. The third pick in the 2000 draft, Gaborik was named the NHL’s player of the week for scoring three goals and eight points in four games last week. The Wild will take a 3-0-1 streak into its game against Colorado tonight, the opener of a three-game homestand.

Nice going, Rangers. They spent $70.5 million to sign free agents Bobby Holik and Darius Kasparaitis and they’re still heading toward another non-playoff finish. There were 0-3-1 on their recent homestand, prompting fans to chant for refunds. Goalies Mike Richter and Dan Blackburn have had rocky starts, and the defense has been disorganized. They won’t get far looking for spectacular goaltending to save them in every game.

There’s just no pleasing some people. While the Kings and Mighty Ducks are trekking around North America for most of the first six weeks of the season, Toronto Coach-General Manager Pat Quinn was grumbling about having to play seven consecutive home games. Too many distractions at home, he claims, and too easy to get stale. Here’s a solution: Pretend it’s the playoffs and take the team to a hotel for a couple of days. The Maple Leafs have an absurdly easy schedule -- their longest trip is four games, to Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and New Jersey in late December and early January -- and they don’t have to visit Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose or Phoenix. Quinn should be thankful the schedule maker was so kind, rather than complaining.

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The St. Louis Blues are looking hard at signing free-agent goalie Byron Dafoe. Injuries have depleted the Blues’ goaltending and Dafoe looks better by the day.... The Edmonton Oilers gave a two-year contract extension to Patrick LaForge, the team’s president and CEO.


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