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Reducing the ‘guesswork’ of officiating

By Evan Sporer, 10/26/17, 4:30PM MDT


Cognitive training for better officiating

It's not uncommon for a hockey player, coach or fan to leave the rink after a game with a referee’s call still on their mind, still hung up in disagreement and contempt.

And according to Scott Zelkin and Matt Leaf, no call is the root of more dissatisfaction than what Leaf describes as the "false alarm," a penalty that simply never took place.

“It disrupts the flow, it’s frustrating, and it makes it very difficult to know what the stance is and what the expectations are,” said Leaf, the director of USA Hockey’s Officiating Education Program. “The No. 1 thing that frustrates players, coaches and GMs are those cheap calls.”


But now, Zelkin, a former NHL referee, and Leaf, are attempting to reconfigure the alarm system. With the help of The Hockey IntelliGym, a cognitive engineering program developed by ACE (Applied Cognitive Engineering), USA Hockey is putting referees through a new training program, and seeing positive results.

The "false alarms" are being greatly reduced.

“As the level increases, and the pressure increases, we’re working with officials in terms of their anticipation, in terms of their awareness, and in terms of their judgment,” said Zelkin, manager of USA Hockey’s Junior Officiating Development Program. “If we can help limit mistakes, it’s a victory for everyone. Officiating hockey is no different than playing in the sense that you’re trying to limit mistakes.”


The Hockey IntelliGym completed a program with USA Hockey and its referees during the 2015-16 season, and its results showed a 92 percent reduction in the amount of times officials stopped the game for no justified reason.

“To run the program, it takes 20-30 minutes each segment, but it’s progressive, so once the participant achieves a certain level, the game changes,” Leaf said. “There’s a very scientific progression that’s involved. Essentially what it does is brain training as it relates to situations and environments for hockey players.”

The program was originally used with the United States National Team Development Program, which still incorporates The Hockey IntelliGym in its training. But Leaf began to wonder if it could have the same positive effects on referees.

“Just thinking out loud, anticipation is always important, awareness is important to officials,” Leaf said. “Being able to read and manage the play, and having multiple things going on at the same time are all traits that are conducive to successful officiating,” he said.

So Leaf pitched the idea to Zelkin, who was definitely interested. From there, they got in contact with ACE, ran it by them, and the trial was set up to be conducted with the referees.

“This wasn’t mandatory,” Zelkin said. “This was, ‘Here’s an opportunity for you to do something that could potentially make you better.’ They enthusiastically got on board with at least going through with the process to see if it helped.”


Of the 40 referees who went through The Hockey IntelliGym program, juxtaposed to the control group, the IntelliGym-trained referees reduced unjustified game stoppages by an average of 2.55 times per game. Each group got better as the season went on, but the IntelliGym-trained referees progressed at a much higher clip.

“Even before we got the results back,” Zelkin said, “there were a number of officials that said to me, ‘You know what? I noticed a difference in how I was thinking about things on the ice and how I was reacting to things on the ice. I don’t know if it had anything to do with the IntelliGym, but it seems kind of coincidental otherwise. I really liked it.’”


By improving a referee’s cognitive function, it allows him or her to be in the proper position to see the play and make the correct decision. Every American-born referee hired by the NHL the past 19 years has come through USA Hockey’s Officiating Development Program. The goal now, according to Zelkin and Leaf, is for those in stripes to keep pace with the accelerating players they’re policing.

“When Scott or I or the supervisor sees an official make a cheap call, it generally means that they guessed,” Leaf said. “That they didn’t have a really great look at it, and for whatever reason they overreacted, they guessed at what happened, and they ended up basically making a call that wasn’t there.”

The Hockey IntelliGym is helping reduce the guesswork.

“What this suggests is that purely from a logical standpoint and what the IntelliGym was supposed to do for the players in terms of creating awareness, in terms of being able to manage multiple situations, in terms of anticipation and those types of things, what we can conclude is that the IntelliGym gave the same types of traits to the referees,” Leaf said. “Because it put them in a better position to see what they need to see. When they were in the better position, they didn’t guess as often.”