Dennis Milligan (Part 2): Gametime Action

This is the second in our four-part look behind the scenes of an NHL game showing what the off-ice officials do.

I arrive early, just after the NHL crew has had dinner in the press room downstairs at the Honda Center, home of the Anaheim Ducks. Dennis Milligan greets me. “You ready to see up there?” he asks, indicating the far upper reaches of the Honda Center. This is where the NHL officials watch the game from, and they’re up there by NHL rules, because the off-ice officials must be removed from the crowd, “so as to remain impartial.”

Am I ready? I’ve been waiting to do this for thirty years or more, ever since I was a kid watching the Montreal Canadiens play on TV. Back then, the guys in the black blazers were called “minor officials,” and they would get their moment on TV whenever there was a question about the clock.

“The referrees are consulting with the minor officials about the remaining time,” Danny Gallivan would say in his metallic twang. “They’re a dedicated crew, and they want to get it right.”

But who were they? Finally, I would get to know, and I hope you’re curious too, because what follows will answer those questions.

In recent years, with the removal of the goal judges from behind the net, all that fans see of the off-ice crew are the guys in the penalty and timing bench areas of the arena, but the crew is much bigger than that. Nowadays, what are called the “Off-ice officials” work in a crew of fourteen to sixteen every game, their responsibilities divided up so that all of the action is properly governed and all league rules and procedures are followed, and there are a lot more of those than you might have imagined.

In Anaheim, the Crew Supervisor is Steve Bashe, and the Scoring System Manager is Dennis Milligan. Working under Bashe are the goal judges, Doug Ingraham and Robert Douglis, two penalty box attendants, Greg Jowyk and Ric Nichols, a TV Timeout Coordinator, Blaine Goetz, a Video Goal Judge, Greg McAlpine, and two Arena Technical Coordinators, Stephen Olsthoorn and Scott Lyons.

Working under Milligan are the Official Scorer, Serge Gagne, Stats Entry Scorer 2 Ed Middleton, Time on Ice Scorers 1 and 2, Dennis John Thurston Jr. and Dennis Thurston, and an Event Analyst, Steven Laing. It is these guys who I will shadow as the Ducks play Chicago. Long before the game begins, they rendezvous in the gondola area of the arena, ready to put the game into statistical perspective.

Up top where we are, it’s stark, open. At Honda Center, you get off the elevator at the Press level and then climb a flight of stairs to the rafters. Once there, you move along a hallway, past the maze of electrical wires which service the building, and make your way to the scoring officials’ area. This is a long desk with a bank of laptops sitting at the leading edge, chairs in front. As I will find out when the game begins, no one sits.

The area you walk through to get to the desks is the size of a large living room, with a big toolchest sitting to the left and a bank of computer and video-related equipment in a locked tower to the right. Out ahead is the view of the rafters, and straight down in front, a perfect view of the ice, which looks much closer than it likely is.

Further along the hallway is the video review room. My belief before gaining this inside look was that the people there were generally not consulted unless there was a controversy about a goal. I will shortly find out that this is not the case, as every goal is looked at between periods so that the scoring is correct.

The action, once the game begins, is so furious, the demands of the game so many, that the pace up here is almost as frantic as that on the ice.

But like the guys on the ice, this crew knows exactly what they’re doing, and so what appears at first to be a controlled chaos looks, by the time I’ve seen these guys in action for a period, more like a choreographed ballet, every person doing his job, all working together too, and everyone making sure that every hit, shot, block, and goal is recorded for posterity, and correctly.

If you had the chance to look over my shoulder as I looked over the crew’s, here’s what you’d see, going right to left facing out toward the ice surface.

Two guys record when players come on and off the ice. In the case of Anaheim, this is the father and son duo of Dennis John Thurston Jr. and Dennis Thurston. Son does the home team, which the guys tell me is easier because, of course, they see the Ducks all the time and so are familiar with sweater numbers and typical line combinations.

Father takes the visitors, which means that each night, he has to be sharp to know who’s who and to get at least a passing familiarity with who plays where and with whom.

Sounds easy, but that’s because you’re used to watching a game where someone is calling out the lines for you. He’s the play-by-play announcer. But those of you who go to games live (and don’t bring a radio) or who turn the TV volume down and just watch the game know that it’s extremely difficult to keep track of visiting players, especially in an era where their heads are covered by helmets and many faces partially obscured by visors.

As the game gets going and the flow of changing on the fly begins, I notice that the job the Time On Ice guys do is like being a sprinter—quick bursts of activity where they have to get the mouse working to click people on and off, and then periods of thirty to fifty seconds where nothing is demanded of them. But their eyes are always flitting back and forth between play and bench so they’re ready for the next change.

Next to the TOI guys are Dennis Milligan and Ed Middleton, Stats Entry Scorers 1 and 2, and their jobs are to get shots, hits, giveaways and takeaways, blocked shots, penalty times and numbers, and who drew them, and to time the faceoffs.

Anytime a shot is taken, it is marked as to where it came from and what type of shot it is, and who took it. The laptop has an icon image of the rink and the official in charge of recording shots clicks on the spot where the shot was taken, then gets a drop-down menu which says “Wrist, snap, wraparound” etc. so that he can record the type of shot.

In the hectic pace of game action, though, sometimes three shots are taken in a row. In that case, Official Scorer Serge Gagne calls them out, and then the Stats Entry Scorer Ed Middleton will record the details when play stops or the pace relaxes. If they need to go to video to check, they can do that, also. But the crew is expert enough that this rarely happens.

One further nugget: when they record that a shot was taken, they can also mark it as a “big shot,” and that information gets transferred electronically to the server, which links with the video feed. That way, the producers at the networks don’t have to look at the whole game to find the highlights. They can focus on those moments. The same marking system is used for hits, and as the game goes on, I hear the guys yell out “hit 17, mark it” as an indication.

If a goal is scored, a net pops up and the place where the puck went in is recorded.

Beside Ed is the Event Analyst (formerly Spotter), on this evening Steven Laing. He watches and calls shots, hits, and other action, helping out whenever things get too crazy, which, I soon see, happens a lot.

And finally, at the left end as you face the ice is the man, the Official Scorer. In Anaheim, that’s Serge Gagne, former Montrealer and a hockey player in his younger days. He’s been at this in the Ducks’ arena for nearly twenty years, and it is ultimately his decision who gets credited with goals and assists, though as I learn over the course of the evening, getting it right is a product of multiple inputs.

As the game begins, the crew members each huddle over a laptop, clicking away to record their particular set of stats, and voices call out to keep everyone aware of all that’s happening.

“Hit, hit, mark it.” I hear. A few seconds later, “No hit, no hit. No, he still has the puck,” talking about a different play.

The first period of the game I watch has one interesting incident where the puck seems to go in the net, but the referee signals no goal. “No goal, no goal, waving it off,” someone up top calls out. A long review follows, and then the referee gets word through his headset and signals it was a goal.

The period ends, and Scoring Systems Manager Milligan checks with his guys, looks over the information about the shots, and checks the goals and penalties against the set of notes he has taken by hand. Doing that, he notices that the penalty time for one penalty seems to be wrong, so he goes to his computer and checks when the prior faceoff was. This confirms that the computer’s version of things is correct, and he then gives the players’ TOI numbers a look. All seems well, so he hits the “Period Official” button on his screen, and goes to the video room.

The disputed goal is beyond calling back now, obviously, but he still wants to know what the rationale was for calling the play a goal. It takes several angles to see the right replay to show that the puck changed momentum and slid through the goaltender’s legs, thus suggesting that did not slide in with the goalie, but was properly directed into the net by an offensive player’s stick.

We go downstairs to the press area and get a coffee, but it’s quick, because most of the seventeen minutes between frames have been eaten up already.

Period two has a good hit, and I hear, “Mark that one—solid” yelled out. By this point, I’m getting used to the pace and starting to anticipate what will be called out, and I’m watching each guy carefully, noticing that their vigilance never gets any less.

Period three brings another intrigue, and it’s simple: Did a Ducks’ player (Bobby Ryan) touch the puck as it went past him out to the front of the net? The test is easy. “If we see it, he gets it,” Dennis says. Video shows that the puck passes under Ryan’s stick, yet despite multiple views of a number of angles, there’s no way to tell whether he touches it. But it will make a difference as to who is credited with the assists. Dennis, not able to resolve it, phones down to the team’s PR guy, Alex Gilchrist, to ask him to confirm with the player whether he touched the puck. “At that point, it’s his [Ryan’s] call,” Milligan explains.

Dennis then calls Supervisor Bashe to let him know there’s going to potentially be a scoring change, and that he will hear from Gilchrist if that’s the case.

When stuff like this happens during the first forty mintues of a game, if the confirmation can be done between periods, it is. That’s why you sometimes get a scoring change announced early in a subsequent period. If not, it will have to be after the game, and the stats will be corrected accordingly.

The end of the game also brings closure to the statistical gathering activities of the crew, and after inputting attendance, winning and losing goalie, identifying the biggest hits of those he marked, and the three stars, Dennis checks everything over and prints out the stats for the media and what they call “the book”—the more complete set of stats which the teams get, the volume of which I had no idea existed. He then does his final data upload, hits the “Game Oficial” tab on his screen, and puts the equipment away. At the same time, Serge is filling out, in ink, the handwritten scoresheet which also gets turned in.
By this time of night, fans are halfway home. Players are getting back into their luxo-barges to leave the rink, and Dennis Milligan heads out to this car, license number “NHL #1,” to get on the freeway himself.

When he gets there, he’s as likely to be found watching a game on tape as heading to bed. “Got to scout the next teams, see their trends and how they play the game,” he explains. For this hockey guy, the game never stops, and for his crew, the game is seen in dimensions not imagined by most fans.

Next in this series: a closer look at what Dennis Milligan does in the hours before and after the typical NHL game, as well as more information about his duties while the game goes on.

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