The Goal Judge 1877-2007
Attacked by players and fans alike, he was the game's final arbiter, and the referee's lifeline
COLIN CAMPBELL | November 8, 2007 |
The hockey goal judge, or umpire as he was first known, came into being some time around 1877 in Montreal. Like many aspects of hockey's origins, exact details are sketchy. But what is certain is that the goal judge was born a powerful figure, at least as important as the referee.
In those early games, there were no hockey nets, just metal posts. And the goal judge stood on the ice, just behind them. Umpires typically wore no more equipment than a heavy coonskin coat. Injuries were common. "It was a hazardous trade," says hockey historian Bill Fitsell.
The umpire played a vital yet often thankless role, deciding if the puck, in its entirety, crossed between the posts(a job description that wouldn't change for over 100 years). When a goal was scored, the umpire would wave a white flag or ring a bell. Disputes were common and disgruntled players were known to snipe shots at the goal judge in anger.
Early on, there was talk of developing a helmet for umpires, says Fitsell. But instead, they were simply moved off the ice. By 1917, with the founding of the National Hockey League, all umpires were sitting safely behind the boards and they were given their now famous red light to signal goals. Their new perch offered protection from the action on the ice, but put them closer to another threat — the fans. In one playoff game in 1938 in New York, fans were said to have held down one goal judge's hands to stop him from signalling a goal. Modern-day goal judges speak of being pelted with mustard-covered hot dogs and other arena projectiles.
Despite their sway, goal judges weren't always unbiased. As recently as the 1970s, they were employed by teams, not the league. Those who erred too often in favour of the home squad could be replaced by the referee. In 1927, the New York Americans, under the ownership of bootlegger Bill Dwyer, were accused of installing a goal judge with orders to hit the red light if the puck got near the opposing team's goal line. In another match, the umpire taunted Ottawa goalie Alex Connell through the wire mesh above the boards to the point that the netminder butt-ended him in the nose. In more recent times, players would smash their sticks or spit on the glass in front of the judge.
Becoming a goal judge wasn't difficult. There was no eye test, and no forms to fill out. According to one veteran goal judge, who asked that his name not be used, training consisted entirely of the following lecture: "You're the goal judge. If the puck crosses the line completely, turn the light on. If it doesn't, don't." They weren't well paid either. In the 1970s they received about $15 a game, and more recently, $80.
Carlton "Mac" McDiarmid, a long-time goal judge at the Montreal Forum, recalls one of his first NHL games in the early 1970s. When a Toronto Maple Leaf player wound up to take a slapshot at his net, he excitedly, and prematurely, signalled a goal. The puck was stopped by the netminder. Referee Andy Van Hellemond came up to him between periods to offer him some sound goal-judge advice. "He said, 'Look, Mac, it's better to be a second late than a second early.' "
The 1980s were the heyday of the goal judge. To highlight their importance, they were reclassified in the NHL rule book as "off-ice officials" rather than just "minor officials." The league began sending in out-of-town goal judges to work playoff games, says Bryan Lewis, a former NHL director of officiating. Goal judges were a referee's lifeline, adds Lewis. "There were nights where you'd love someone to throw you a stone with a note attached saying, 'The puck was in the net.' " The goal judge provided that backup.
In 1991, video replay arrived in the NHL. In those first years, there were just two or three cameras at NHL games, and sometimes the proper angle on a close call was missing. Goal judges maintained their niche through the 1990s, says Lewis. "Their role wasn't diminished." But as video replay became more sophisticated, and with an army of video judges reviewing goals from multiple angles, the writing was on the wall. Goal judges still had a phone in their booth, linked to the scorekeeper at centre ice, but the referees stopped calling. Former goaltender Glenn Healy was once asked about the relevance of the goal judge in this day and age. "It's a great seat," he replied.
This season, the NHL goal judge was moved from his perch behind the net, where he had sat for 90 years. With contentious goals handled entirely by video, he can now be found tucked away in remote corners of arenas or in press gondolas, far from the action, and reduced to a token button-pusher. All that remains is his red light.