NHL's embrace of new, high-definition technology from on high (or at least Toronto)
Mike Murphy, NHL vice president of hockey operations, keeps an eye on the games from the league's Toronto headquarters ... just in case.
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It wasn't that many years ago that the NHL was about as technologically advanced as a transistor radio. Replays at some games were a luxury. Details such as how a bang-bang goal was scored sometimes got lost.
The league is changing that. It is incorporating technology that enhances the game experience for fans, makes officials' reviews easier and helps media members.
Fans going to the Penguins' home game Friday night against Tampa Bay might not readily realize the changes, but they're in place -- as they are for those who won't be at Mellon Arena but might want to follow the game via the Internet.
Perhaps the biggest update for this season is a new video system used to review whether a goal was scored. The overhead cameras aimed at the nets now have the sharp images of high definition and are on a closed circuit to the video judge's booth and to the NHL's review officials in Toronto.
The original system, installed in the early 1990s, used standard definition and was routed through a production truck. The result was a picture that wasn't crystal clear and a system with a greater chance for breakdowns.
If you've noticed incredible detail this season on replays when a puck was near the goal line, that's the work of the high-definition setup.
"We saw a need to move ahead with technology," said Mike Murphy, NHL senior vice president of hockey operations based on Toronto. "We wanted the best quality view from those cameras."
All the league's arenas are outfitted with the new system, and the bugs -- occasionally the image freezes, for example -- have become fewer and fewer.
"Right now, everybody is getting use of the high-definition view 97 to 98 percent of nights," Murphy said.
The old system is still in place for this season, mainly as a backup, so video goal judges have four screens available: one of each net using the former system and one of each net in high definition.
A peek into the video-replay booth in the Mellon Arena press box on a recent game night provided proof of the increased clarity with the new system. On the high-definition monitors, the orange Gatorade logos on the green water bottles resting on top of the nets and skate marks in the blue creases were visible. Those things were not distinguishable on the monitors receiving standard-definition images over the old system.
In most arenas, including Mellon, the camera angle has the crossbar slightly offset from the underlying goal line, making it easier to see a sliver of white if a puck moves even slightly beyond the goal line. The sharp images also aid in determining whether a puck was directed in illegally by a skate, high stick or glove.
"We're pleased with the way it's come out," Murphy said. "In a sport like ours, you want to make sure you have the best resources to make the best calls. It moves so darn fast."
With the enhanced review system and two referees working each game, technology has stolen a lot of luster from the goal judges, who turn on the red light to indicate a goal. And they still can't activate the goal light after the period-ending green light goes on automatically.
Some goal judges have had their small booths moved from behind the nets to a spot farther away so seats can be sold in those prime locations. The goal judges still have their longtime perches at Mellon Arena but probably will be moved when the city's new arena opens in 2010 -- if goal judges aren't obsolete by then.
"We've had a lot of conversation abut the goal judges," Murphy said. "They've become less judgers of goals and more signalers of goals."
And if there's any dispute, the call comes from the video goal judge.
The video goal judge working each game is required to consult with officials in Toronto on every review -- about 500 a season. That's simpler now, thanks to a new intercom system that operates over the Internet and allows the central office and those in every arena to communicate quickly. It has lessened the time needed for reviews.
It's not just replay officials who benefit from the clearer overhead views. Replay feeds are available to teams and broadcasters to be shown on arena video boards and television.
In addition, other off-ice officials are free to duck into the video goal judge's booth if they think a high-definition replay could help them.
That happened in Ottawa's 4-1 victory against the Penguins Dec. 13, when Senators forwards Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza each batted at a puck that entered the net. The clarity of the new system's overhead image helped officials determine that Heatley's stick blade was in front of Spezza's in the crease, and Heatley was awarded the goal.
One other advance this season is found on NHL.com. The league, which has embraced the Internet as a way to enhance its presence, added real-time play-by-play during games.
Anyone online can keep up with the details of a game. The information comes from that game's off-ice officials.
"It makes my life so much easier," said Penguins radio analyst Phil Bourque, who monitors the real-time feature during games to provide instant, accurate information, such as a penalty call or who took a shot and how far away the player was from the net. "I don't know how I did a game without it."
And to think, at one time all the technology the NHL needed for a game were two red and green lights, a scoreboard and a public address system.
First Published January 16, 2008 12:00 am