From top to bottom, youth to pros, safety remains of utmost importance in our role as hockey officials. By making the right calls, we’re making the game safe for all players and spectators involved.
Jeff Greenstein takes that responsibility one step further. Greenstein, a registered official who has worked at several USA Hockey National Championships and at the collegiate and junior hockey levels, has been a coordinator with the NHL Department of Player Safety for the past two seasons.
We caught up with Greenstein to hear how the department works, similarities between his role in the NHL’s New York offices and as an on-ice official, plus ways we can keep the game safe.
USA Hockey: So tell us more about your day-to-day with the NHL Department of Player Safety.
Jeff Greenstein: I’m a coordinator in the department, which means I’m on a staff of hockey people headed up by George Parros. We watch each of the NHL’s 1,271 regular season games, and we watch every minute of every game played. Our mandate is to keep the game as safe as we possibly can, but at the same time, preserve the physicality, the passion, the grit that everybody loves to watch.
We’re probably best known as the department that assesses fines and suspensions and infractions, things like that, but we also do a fair amount of proactive education for players as they enter the league.
What we do in New York is different than the situation room in Toronto, which handles goal reviews, coach’s challenge and some of those things.
USAH: Does that involve the league’s concussion protocol and concussion spotter program?
Greenstein: While we work with them, they’re a distinct department. They’re in our room, we work with them, but they’re not in the Department of Player Safety; they have their own structure and it’s a completely distinct entity, although we do work together.
USAH: Since joining the department, what are some things you’ve encountered and learned that might have come as a surprise?
Greenstein: One of the things that I’ve learned is how much research and how much care goes in to each of these positions. It’s very easy to watch as a fan, or even as an official who sees games at different levels, and see an isolated incident and formulate an opinion based on that. But I’ve learned quickly that the amount of care that goes in to each of these decisions made [by the NHL Department of Player Safety] is very impressive. The amount that Stephane Quintal [former head of NHL’s player safety] and George Parros now take before coming to a decision is impressive.
Starting with George and everyone under him, I think we all hold ourselves to a really high standard. I think we feel like we need to back up decisions with comparable plays of why something was called or why it needs supplemental discipline or not. It’s definitely something we spend a lot of time on in order to keep a consistency we’re proud of.
USAH: How has your experience as an official helped with your position in the department? Both roles are pretty heavily criticized, right?
Greenstein: For sure. For the department, we know that not everyone is going to agree with everything we do. That’s to be expected because that’s the nature of fandom. When you’re a fan, you’re passionate, that comes with the territory and we understand that. We’re proud that NHL fans care so much about their team and this game and we think that that’s a good thing and it’s healthy for the sport as a whole If there’s any sort of frustration from that.
As far as things that carry over, officiating has definitely given me a way of looking at the game and it’s been beneficial when having that discussion of what I’m seeing. We’re breaking down and analyzing hockey plays every night.
I think the skills you learn becoming an official are helpful no matter what line of work you’re in; Confidence, communication, critical thinking, leadership, those are things that are valuable no matter what type of work you’re in. I think being a referee gives you skills that transcends being on the ice.
USAH: And to point out the obvious, but keeping the game safe is top priority in both youth officiating and the NHL Department of Player Safety.
Greenstein: Exactly. We all have the same goal. We’re invested in hockey, we want to make sure it’s fun and enjoyable, and we want to make it safer. We want to extend players’ careers and keep them playing as long as we possibly can. We do a lot of the same types of proactive education, players playing the right way and discouraging the behaviors that we don’t think should be in the game.
Here we have the benefit of video technology that you don’t have in youth hockey. In terms of supplemental discipline, we’re able to parse the small parts of the play. We’re watching high-definition and are able to take a precedent that you can’t really take in other professional and non-professional leagues.
USAH: Since you mentioned video review, talk about the role that It plays for you, and in the game at the NHL level.
Greenstein: We use it to make sure what we think we saw at full speed is actually what happened. For us it also allows us to communicate better. A lot of the players now are growing up learning with video and being coached with video and I think we found that being able to show a player how a hit was good or could have been better is a better way of getting the message across and eventually changing the behaviors.
I think for us, we see benefits. That’s different than you get at the grassroots level because we have lots and lots of different camera angles, we have high definition, we have slow motion. At the youth level, that’s not always the case and that sometimes one angle can be deceiving so it’s a sticky thing to open up when you don’t have all the tools to do it correctly.
USAH: Last but not least, what can officials do to ensure they are keeping the game safe.
Greenstein: Control the things you’re able to control, and have courage in your convictions. By doing your job, you’re keeping the game safe. Don’t forget, preparation in terms of rulebook knowledge, it’s so important, and it’s not something you can do once you’re already on the ice. In-game performance is largely a measure of things you’ve done leading up to the game and once you see something that goes against what you know to be right, have the courage in your convictions and throw your arm up because everybody is depending on you to do it. The parents entrust you with their kids are and it’s vital for the future of the game.
Let’s be honest: Officiating is far from easy. The fact that special skills (skating) are required to simply do our job, especially as the speed of hockey changes, it can make it downright hard.
Toss in the criticisms and “myths” that influence the world of hockey officiating and one can see how the environment can be difficult for the next wave of officials.
We tackled a few different officiating myths a few years back. In this second installment, we’ll take a look at some of the other more common misconceptions about officiating and the game.
Myth 1: “The best officials ‘manage’ the game and recognize some rules don’t need to be enforced.”
This is actually a repeat from the first edition, but it bears repeating. Considering an official’s primary role is to enforce the rules of the game to the best of their ability, this is one myth that becomes fairly easy to bust.
Nowhere in the rulebook, or any other education materials, does it suggest that a particular rule should not be enforced – ever. Yet, some officials feel it is their job to pick and choose what infractions they want to call or they simply ignore certain rules all together.
The problem is it’s impossible to pick and choose which rules to enforce on a consistent basis. Player safety is a MUST and is a critical part of the official’s job. Every official needs to set a tight standard as it relates to dangerous actions. However, in some cases we have officials who do a good job enforcing dangerous fouls but are lax when it comes to other infractions where injury potential is not as great.
In addition, what these officials are missing is the missed hook, hold or interference may have an even greater impact on the outcome of the game, as it often involves a scoring opportunity. After all, the object of the game is to score more goals then your opponent. The reality is an illegal act that takes away a scoring opportunity is no less important to the outcome of the game than an aggressive foul.
Myth 2: “Faceoffs don’t really matter as long as they are fair and even.”
Obviously, having a “fair” faceoff is important, and most people would agree that a faceoff is fair if both players cheating are even (i.e., as long as both forwards are encroaching the same distance, it is even and not a big deal, or both centers are turned slightly and don’t have their sticks in contact with the white portion of the faceoff spot – but they are even, so get the puck down).
However, the rules are there for a reason and, quite simply, are designed to improve the possibility that every faceoff is a fair faceoff.
Hockey takes a tremendous amount of skill, but there is one skill that every single player can do equally well and that is to stand behind a line; that is all that we are asking them to do during a faceoff. So why would we not expect them to do it for every single faceoff and instead settle for less?
If you really want fair faceoffs, establish the expectation from the opening faceoff of every game. Clearly communicate expectations and then hold the players accountable for meeting them. It won’t take players long to adjust, and if you do this at the start of the season and stick with it, no bad habits are formed and after the first few games faceoffs are not a problem.
Myth 3: “As long as the faceoff is fair, the location does not matter.”
Sticking with the faceoff theme, establishing the proper faceoff location is important in every instance, especially now that USA Hockey has gone with the nine-spot faceoff locations. The territorial difference between an end-zone faceoff and a neutral-zone faceoff is significant and can result in an immediate scoring opportunity. The official’s job when play stops is to have an awareness of where play stopped and then understand the rules to determine the proper location. Getting it right does matter to the integrity of the game and the best officials take pride in this area and earn respect as a result.
Myth 4: “The use of electronic scoresheets means officials are not responsible for making sure they are accurate.”
More and more leagues and rinks are using electronic scoring instead of the old hard-copy four-part scoresheet. In addition, more and more instances are occurring where penalties (mainly those involving potential suspensions) are recorded improperly and it creates confusion as to what was actually assessed and what, if any, discipline is required. This creates considerably more work for volunteer team managers and affiliate disciplinary personnel who now have to track the correct information down. To make matters worse, in many cases, the officials are not entered into the electronic scoring either.
The fact is, the use of electronic scoring is still an official document, and the referee has an obligation to ensure its accuracy at the end of every game. Part of that responsibility is to make sure the officials’ names are entered properly. Sure, it may take an extra minute or two to check versus the old hard-copy, but laziness is not a valid excuse for not completing your work.
Myth 5: “There is no avenue to hold officials accountable for misbehavior, so they are allowed to do anything they want.”
We all know that this is not true, but based on some of the stories submitted from the field, sometimes one has to wonder. There are situations where officials do act unprofessionally or inappropriately and there has to be accountability in those instances. Local officials groups or affiliates do have the authority and the responsibility to sanction officials who fall into these categories. We are not talking about missing a call or simply making a mistake. We are talking about situations where the integrity of the game is clearly compromised, such as the use of inappropriate language or using excessive force on a player.
Officials have to be above reproach to effectively do their jobs, and when one fails in this area, action needs to be taken by the proper authority. Turning a blind eye and not addressing it only feeds the misconception and makes all of our jobs more difficult.
So, there you have it. The takeaways from this go-around are pretty clear.