Dennis Milligan knows hockey, having started out his career with the Whittier California Polar Kings in 1968. Back then, it was contact hockey, no face-masks, and he was on a team with his twin brother all during his growing up. At the time, he had no idea he would end up working NHL games as an Off-ice Official some twenty years later. But he’s not with the crew of NHL Off-ice Officials who work the games in Anaheim because of his playing experience. He’s there thanks to of a combination of knowledge, luck, and the intervention of the hockey gods.
From a technical standpoint, Milligan is entrusted with managing the complex, multi-faceted system which, unseen to most fans, is used to watch, quantify, and sometimes make determinations on the things which go on at ice level. His title, officially, is “Scoring Systems Manager,” but you’d be better to call him the eyes and ears of the NHL before, during, and even after the games take place. His responsibilities stretch from making sure that rosters conform to the league’s salary cap limits to making sure that each goal gets credited properly to the man who scored it. Sometimes, that responsibility stretches far into the night.
He got into the game by what he describes as pure good luck, though his longtime love of hockey obviously had a lot to do with it. As he describes his start, “When the Ducks came into the league, I thought it would be great to be a part of it. But I told my wife, those guys [the NHL off-ice officials] are all older, established guys,” his impression coming from having watched games on TV growing up. “I could never be one of them.” So instead, he decided to try for a job with the team.
Dennis headed to the arena, as he describes it, “When they were doing the cattle call to hire people as ushers and to fill other staff positions in the rink. Nobody had been hired in the building yet. I told them I was passionate about hockey, that I knew a lot about the game, the teams out there at the time. I said if there are any key positions . . . . Game one, they put me in the press box. Great!”
“Then I saw the off-ice officials, and they were young. They were my age. Normally, when we grew up in hockey, these were all older guys. Of course, that probably had a lot to do with me being a young kid playing. These guys were my age, so I could talk to them. In the elevator, I talked hockey. Serge [Gagne, Official Scorer] quizzed me about hockey, and I always came up with the right answers. Then, I was at Back to School night at my kid’s kindergarten, and who’s there but our crew supervisor’s kid? They’re in the same class. I see [the dad] Steve [Bashe] and start talking to him; I said I’d love to get a position with the league.”
A month or two after that, Bashe called Milligan to say that he would love to have him as an unpaid spotter. “Long story short, next thing I’m hired by the crew,” Dennis says. This was more than fifteen years ago.
You understand his approach when he explains how he feels about what he does. “This is not a job. It’s like winning a contest. I have seven brothers and sisters, and we all played hockey except one, who was a figure skater. They’re all completely envious of what I get go do.”
In the time he’s been with the league, Dennis has missed just eight games. Six of those were because he broke his back and had a brace from hips to shoulders. His total to this point thus stretches to between 700-715 games.
His paid job started in 1996-97, when the NHL went to computers, from hand-done stats. Dennis was a TOI (Time On Ice) statistician. He did that for a few years and then was bumped up to his current job. But as he says, “If I had not come here to apply as an usher, if my son had not been in the same class as the Crew Supervisor’s kid, I probably would not be here now. So as far as I’m concerned, it was the hockey gods looking down, and they smiled. But this is not a job. I love coming here. The worst hockey game is better than the best day at my regular job.” Milligan is one of the top salespeople for a large company, a job he enjoys as well.
As Scoring System Manager, Milligan is ultimately responsible for the group of people which gathers stats as the game goes along, processes them, and generates various reports, both computerized and handwritten, which go to the league and, quite literally, down in history.
Perhaps the two biggest games in his career were the two where the Ducks played for the Stanley Cup. The first, in New Jersey in 2003, the team lost, but as Dennis describes it, “The league gave us the option, if we could get to New Jersey, to go to the game, and a couple of our guys did that. But after game six was over here, I was done [officially]. My job was done, and I could watch that game [seven] as a fan.”
Of course, the next time the Ducks contested for the Cup was game five versus Ottawa in 2007, a game they won in Anaheim. “That was an interesting day in my life,” Dennis says, “Because that was my twentieth wedding anniversary, and generally going to a hockey game while your wife stays at home would not be good. But of course she gets tickets, and not only that, but the team was nice enough to put our name up on the scoreboard as celebrating our anniversary. It was great because she’s a huge Ducks fan. She gets very upset when I watch hockey, because I’ll say, ‘Man, that was a great goal,’ especially, for example, watching the Kings. She’s ready to file for divorce. But to me, no matter who scored it, a great goal is a great goal. That’s what we try to foster up here [in the booth]. Don’t be excited about who scored the goal, just be excited about the goal itself.”
In the middle of the 2007 Cup-winning game, Milligan says, he turned to the guy next to him and said, “The Ducks are going to win the Stanley Cup,” almost incredulous. “This is such an odd thing given the storied teams like Montreal and Toronto. It was nice seeing an old-school team in here, Ottawa, even though it was the rebirth of Ottawa, but still, a Canadian team in here. To me, it was surreal, growing up with Southern California hockey. The Kings had good teams, but they never had the team that was going to go all the way. So to see the Ducks, a relatively young franchise, go all the way, it made you feel good. It kind of made you feel good about the collective bargaining agreement which created parity in the league after the [lockout]. I just thought it was a great thing for hockey that the Ducks could win it.”
He describes the scene during the game: “I had to keep the guys on task, saying, ‘The game’s not over.’ We were still scoring a game, so it was exciting, hectic, but a great thing to be a part of.” He and the crew got to go into the locker room after, but not in their official capacity as NHL officials, more as observers. “We were celebrating hockey,” is how Dennis describes it. After the win, the Ducks offered a ring to the crew, and the league also, but the latter was not a winning team ring, but rather one that celebrated the finals, with both teams which participated in the finals represented.
They did not get a day with the Cup, but the next season opened with the Ducks (and Kings) in London, and four guys from the crew went, on the NHL’s tab. Dennis happened to be talking to Phil Pritchard (the keeper of the Cup) in the hotel bar, and Pritchard said there would be a window of time before the game when Dennis and his guys, as well as the British officials working the game, could have twenty minutes with the Cup.
“They wheeled the Cup up to the locker room where we were, handed it to me, and shut the door. We were excited, but you should have seen the British guys. They couldn’t believe that the Stanley Cup was there, and they were real hockey fans.” One of them had a Carolina sweater on, and he took a picture with the Cup. Then he took that off, and there was a Hartford Whalers sweater under that, proving that they knew the game.”
Dennis’s only regret was that there were only four of them there to enjoy the moment.
Since then, he has kept at the task, piling up game after game, always appreciating the job as much as he did on day one. Being in the booth with him for a recent game, I can attest to the focus and energy he brings to his job.
For a glimpse behind the scenes with the off-ice officials at an NHL game, keep your eye on IH for part two of this four-part series.