Dennis Milligan (Part 4): More Insights

The NHL keeps more numbers than you might imagine on every game. I learned about those during a recent game, when I got to shadow the off-ice crew who does the scoring in Anaheim. In what follows, you’ll learn about the stats and also some other areas of game operation that I’ll bet you’ve never heard about anywhere else.

The number and type of statistics produced by the Off-ice officials at an NHL game is astounding. What the typical fans sees in the box scores is actually only a small portion of what is kept track of. Things changed in this regard a number of years ago, when the league adopted what is known as the Hockey Info Tracking System, or HITS. It is all computer-based, though certain records and information, including a final, official scorecard, are written out by hand.

The information that is recorded by the crew is immediately transferred to NHL.com and other “downstream clients” including ESPN and other sports media outlets. The pressure to get things right, on the fly, is thus intense, but as Scoring Systems Manager Dennis Milligan says, “If you have to correct yourself, that’s OK.” His crew is dedicated to getting it right, because they know that the data they generate will live, probably forever.

Given the ability to crunch data these days, if you think about the logical extension of this ability to record, the ability to retrieve is equally great.

So let’s say that a sixty-one year-old Bobby Ryan is sitting around talking about old times in 2048, and he boasts about his wicked wrist shot. Someone with access to the data the NHL currently keeps (and, in fan- and internet-friendly era, will likely make available to the masses at some point) could click a few keys and say something like, “Actually, Bobby, you took 43% of your shots from the right side, but only 29% of those were wristers. The rest were snapshots.” They could, further, know how many wristers he took from 45 feet as opposed to 30, or ten. And all of this could be quantified according to which teams he did what against.

I just made that data up, obviously, since Ryan’s career is ongoing, but the point is that nothing is now past the league’s ability to quantify.

Or almost nothing. The night I was with the crew in Anaheim, it kept rolling around in my head that there had to be more data that could be crunched, a gaping hole somewhere in the system that could be plugged. Then it came to me.

When a goal is scored, the location is recorded, five-hole, high glove, etc. Further, the stats guys record all the shots, the type, and the location. But who’s watching what the goalies do? We know how many saves they make on how many shots, but are they on their feet or down? Did they go down to make the save or were they down already? What part of the body did they make the save with? Or was it the stick?

How about it? This seems like useful information, and just to make it easy, since I’m an ex-goalie myself, I’d like to suggest that I would be the perfect candidate to start a pilot program to keep this data. Let’s begin in Anaheim in the fall if 2012. How about it, Mr. Bettman? I’m available.

Of course the real result of all of this availability of information is to help teams know more about their players, prospects, and potential trades. Thus, the scout’s job is much easier than ever before. For instance, if a team is looking for a player, they can, in theory, look at the stats and see which lefthand shooting defensemen in the league are more effective at putting the puck on net from the blueline, a potentially important consideration.

And in order for this to happen, lots of data is kept, but it’s far past numbers and stats. A lot of things about the mechanics of the game took me by surprise while I observed the Anaheim crew, and I’m sure most readers don’t know this stuff, either, so here you go—the invisible (to fans) stuff that makes the game happen.

Fans know that there’s a countdown clock to end warmups. But the reason isn’t just to get the TV show which is the game broadcast going.

Dennis Milligan explains: “They have to get off the ice within that thirty seconds, so we have one guy at center ice who checks that. He sits there with a stopwatch. These guys have to be off or the team is fined. And you can’t get on the ice until two minutes before the game is to begin, on the countdown clock. And you can’t come on the ice until the clock for warmups starts. That’s all choreographed by the league.”??Why? “Because the ice needs to have time to set after the Zamboni. The league wants to make sure the ice is as good as is can be, and consistent.”

One other thing is tracked that I’m sure few fans know about, and that is time to drop the puck. The time between faceoffs is divided into three components, and from the time a whistle goes until the puck hits the ice again, each is measured. The teams have five seconds for the teams to get their players on the ice, eight seconds for the linesman to be ready to drop the puck, and five seconds to actually drop the puck. Dennis marks each segment’s ending by a click of his mouse, up in the officials’ booth, and the resulting stats are looked at by the league so that the performance of the on-ice official crews can be evaluated.

Similarly, faceoff wins and losses have complex protocols. How do they determine who wins? Milligan describes it this way: “It depends on where the faceoff is, first of all. If you’re in your defending zone, and you hit the puck and knock it to an opposition player outside the zone, your goal is to get that puck out of your zone, so that’s a win, even though your team did not retain possession. Of course, the obvious answer is whichever team gains possession of the puck. But sometimes, a center won’t touch it. Ryan Getzlaf is the king of putting his shoulder into the opposing player and knocking him off the puck, and the winger comes in and gets it. So the center doesn’t necessarily have to get the puck [to get credited with a win].”

The ironic thing is that someone always has to win the faceoff. So even if the puck bounces and neither center touches it, the team which gets it wins.

Regarding shots on goal: some leagues are more generous than others in crediting these. Should a clear-in be a shot, for instance? The determination the NHL uses is intent.

Dennis says, “There has to be intent to score, and the determination is, when the puck is shot on goal, and would have gone in the net without goaltender interference. So if a defenseman is standing in the crease and the puck is shot and hits his shin pads, then that’s a blocked shot, not a shot on goal, because the goalie didn’t stop it. A lot of people think that should be a shot, but it’s not any longer. But that’s why we have a stat now that’s an AB [Attempt Blocked]. He’s putting it at the net, but it’s not going through to the goalie.”

What about a case when it’s a long dump-in? “If the guy’s looking at the net, if he’s shooting at the net, and it’s easier [to make this call] in the last three seconds than during the period, but if he’s aiming for the net, then that’s a shot. But not if he’s just whacking at the net and it happens to go on the net.”

But whenever the puck goes in, that’s a shot. So Jeremy Roenick’s 500th goal, which took a weird bounce behind the net off a whack that wouldn’t have been a shot had the goal not gone in, had to be credited as a shot because the puck found a way behind the goalie. That’s a bit of an oddity in the scoring system. On the other hand, a puck which rebounds off the boards but which goes in can count as a shot, if the player’s intent was to put it on net, rather than just, say, to get it out of his zone.

Blocked shots, too, have their complexities. “It has to be a shot, first of all. It has to be intended to go to the net. We’ve had an incident where a player was injured by [what he felt was] a blocked shot, and we didn’t give him a block, and we heard about it later, but as we demonstrated to the league, it wasn’t going to the net. It was just being put into the zone.”

Did you ever wonder about pucks, especially back in the days before the netting which keeps most of them out of the seats? The home team has to provide thirty pucks per game, which are kept in a freezer in the timing bench area. They also have reserves if it looks like they’re going to run short.

The pucks, as most fans know, have the home team’s logo on them. They are used for a defined period of playing time, because they must be consistent in performance. They are frozen between 14-17 degrees fahrenheit, the perfect balance between being cold enough not to bounce and being too cold and thus being able to break the glass. They are used for three minutes of clock time.

At the next whistle, the home ice penalty box official will open his door, alerting the linesman that it’s time to change the puck. Depending on the flow of the game, the linesman can change the puck or keep the flow going, according to Dennis Milligan. That puck is then not reused. Pucks used to score important goals are saved. Other game-used pucks are saved and used by the league for commemorations like when a player plays a milestone game (Dennis mentions 300 as an example). The puck is mounted on a plaque with a handwritten scoresheet, just like might have been done twenty, fifty, or eighty years ago.

It takes a lot of people to make all this happen, including an off-ice crew of about eighteen (fourteen or so who work every game, plus alternates). For more on that, see my other stories in this series.

My great thanks to the Off-ice Officials in Anaheim, whose hosting of me made these stories possible. Thanks, too, to the NHL for allowing me full access.

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One Response to “Dennis Milligan (Part 4): More Insights”

  1. Ryan
    April 10, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

    Although I knew all of this information about my dad’s work and how he does it, it was great seeing the view of someone who did not grow up with this information at hand. Great writing, and I’m glad that you are giving everyone an opportunity to see what the Off-Ice Officials do through your writing!