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It’s a different look for goal judges

Times Staff Writer

Amusement park rides aren’t nearly as scary as the upper reaches of Pengrowth Saddledome, home of the Calgary Flames, which is why news that the team’s goal judges would be stationed in the thin air of the catwalk sounded like a bad joke.

So, Pluto was unavailable? Maybe they’re planning on playing U2’s “Vertigo” when a goal is scored. And just an idle thought, will these goal judges be given high-powered binoculars along with their official blazers at Thursday’s home opener?

“It almost sounds laughable,” agreed Flames public relations assistant Sean Kelso.

Not now.

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Goal judges, whose sole time-honored duty was to flip on the red light behind every NHL net when they saw the puck get across the goal line, won’t be seeing the action from as close up this season. Their premium spot, behind the glass and directly in line with the net, is not theirs anymore. In the old days, they sat in an elevated box and the flick of a finger could draw enmity usually reserved for a referee. Those days are gone.

With tonight’s NHL Season Opener 2, the North American version, comes this latest wrinkle. The league, after limited experiments last season, gave teams the OK to sit goal judges elsewhere.

This can mean the Calgary catwalk, the press box (also quite high) or any spot where they can see comfortably -- in some cases that means the tier just above the lower bowl of seats.

For truth be told, goal judges are now an anachronism.

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The two-referee system (phased in during the 1998-99 season and fully implemented by 2000-01) and video replay judges have made it so. In addition, league executives monitoring each game from their Toronto offices have the authority to make final decisions on controversial goals.

The NHL also has made good use of high-definition technology and will be spending about $5 million in arenas this season to upgrade that equipment, Mike Murphy, the league’s vice president of hockey operations, said.

“The goal judge became less and less a factor. Still a factor but quite a factor down the list,” Murphy said, adding the job has become less of a judge and more of a way to signal a goal to those sitting in remote spots of an arena.

The Kings and the Ducks, having experimented with positioning the judges elsewhere, are opting to sit them just above the lower tier. In the playoffs, the Ducks did try putting the goal judges up in the catwalk, but it was simply too far away, the team felt.

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Now wireless technology allows the judge to point and click a receiver at the net, putting on the red light. Even a reporter was able to trigger the red light during pregame warmups at a recent exhibition without unleashing much mayhem. It’s a lot like operating a garage door opener. Vision and trying to see around a maze of bodies crashing the net during the run of play is another story.

Despite all the talk of a goal judge’s decreasing value, there is an even more important underlying factor behind the move: revenue.

The area where the goal judges were once positioned is prime real estate. The Ducks, for example, opened eight seats at the Honda Center, four at each end, two on the glass and two more in the second row.

The seats on the glass are $303 per ticket and the ones in the second row are $79, the club said.

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For the Kings, the reconfiguration has helped open 20 new seats, 10 at each end. Each seat will be sold as a full-season package, at $200 a game, team officials said. Goal judges were relocated to an arena camera spot directly behind the net in the 200 level at Staples Center.

Kelso, of the Flames, said his team would be adding about $50,000 in revenue by making the move.

The Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres are taking different routes.

In Philadelphia, you can either buy a condo -- size dependent on location, of course -- or sit where the goal judges once sat inside Wachovia Center.

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The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in August that there would be packages available costing $225,000 for six seats, which are combined with a mid-level suite for Flyers and 76ers games. There are 12 seats total, two rows of three seats at each end.

Buffalo, in contrast, conducted an online auction for its home opener on Friday against the New York Islanders, calling it the Ultimate Sabres Fan Experience, and the package includes two seats where the goal judges used to reside, and a pregame Zamboni ride, among other things. Bidding for the package closed at $625 Tuesday night. The same bidding process will be used for the Sabres’ next four home games.

While there seems to be an inevitability that goal judges will be rendered obsolete as technology grows more advanced, one league official cautioned: “We’re not there yet.”

Meanwhile, there is plenty of room for red-light embarrassment no matter where the goal judges are sitting. Murphy said that there was a game in Calgary last season when the red light went on, incorrectly, a horn sounded and the Columbus Blue Jackets’ players stopped and the Flames scored in the confusion.

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“I was on the phone for a long time,” he said of that night.

Still, those who have done the job know it could happen to them. Yes, that dreaded moment when the red light flashes and, no, there was no goal.

“It’s better to be a second late than a second early,” said Lloyd Freeberg, an off-ice official in Anaheim, who wrote a book, “In the Bin,” about his experiences.

Freeberg, a defense attorney in Orange County, and his Anaheim hockey colleague and jurist William Bedsworth told war stories about the stress of the goal-judge job and the inevitable mistakes.

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“The first time it happens, you’re not going to believe it,” Bedsworth said at an exhibition last month when the Ducks played host to the Phoenix Coyotes.

Maybe there was some curse by simply talking about it. With 7:24 left in the second period, the red light went on. There was, indeed, no goal. And then came those most chilling words at the next stoppage of play:

“There was no goal. The goal light was inadvertently illuminated.”

lisa.dillman@latimes.com

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