NHL executives Mike Murphy and Colin Campbell (at the “console”) sit on the Bridge in the Situation Room in Toronto, looking up at the wall of TVs as three games play simultaneously on April 9.
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The NHL calls it the Situation Room. Any sports fan with a pulse would call it the Ultimate Man Cave.
The league’s centralized video replay room, located on the 10th floor of the office tower attached to the Air Canada Centre in downtown Toronto, would be one helluva place to hold a Super Bowl party. Or any TV-watching party.
I spent an evening there in early April. Like all visitors, I came away mightily impressed by 1) the conception and execution of the operation, 2) its real-time technology, and 3) the speed of decision-making enabled by 1) and 2).
For these reasons, this system is the envy — and, indeed, the model — of the pro sports world.
And we mean world. In addition to the NFL, Major League Baseball and NBA, officials from even an Aussie rugby league flew halfway around the globe to check it out.
In early December, a day after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced the league was looking at potentially moving to a centralized video review operation, I broke the news that Jay Reid of the NFL’s officiating department had personally checked out the NHL’s Situation Room on Nov. 30.
In late March the NFL did indeed take its first step toward a central video review operation, when owners at the league’s annual meeting passed a new rule allowing members of the NFL officiating department at the league’s New York City headquarters to consult live with referees as they review plays under the hood.
I asked the NHL if I could spend a night in its Situation Room, to learn how the operation works, and to see how much of it might extrapolate to the NFL.
The NHL kindly allowed me to do so during the last week of the 2013-14 regular season. I visited on Wednesday, April 9, an average weeknight with five games on the docket. I picked the brains of the two top NHL executives in charge on this evening — executive vice-president and director of hockey operations Colin Campbell, and senior vice-president of hockey operations Mike Murphy (below).
Usually it’s “Murph” who’s in charge in the Situation Room — six days a week during the season. Only two other men hold the same power as Campbell and Murphy to render verdicts on NHL video reviews over the entire six-month, 1,230-game regular season: Kris King, vice-president of hockey operations; and Rod Pasma, senior director of hockey operations.
Two other NHL executives involved in the direction and evolution of the operation include Stephen Walkom, an NHL senior vice-president and director of officiating, and Kay Whitmore, director of hockey operations and goaltender equipment.
The conclusion I reached is that much of the NHL’s centralized video replay system can, and should, migrate to the NFL. As soon as possible.
As I explain how the NHL’s system works, you’ll see why.
The wall of TVs
The Situation Room is not big: 20-by-40 feet. One of the walls running length-wise features a massive visual assault: high-def TV screens, butted and stacked, stretching 30 feet wide and nearly four feet deep. Man Cave heaven.
The centre projector screen (which appears ghostly, above, as captured by my Canon camera) alone measures nearly seven feet wide by almost four feet deep. It can be quartered to show four different video feeds, and each of those can be quartered again. So up to 16 different sources on this screen alone.
Flanking it on each side are six 46-inch, high-def screens — arranged three across, two deep. Any of those 12 screens can be quartered as well.
On the busiest nights, when as many as 10 games might be going on simultaneously, the TV wall can show different broadcast feeds of the same game, if desired (e.g., TSN and NBC Sports Network), and for all games.
Conversely, on nights with fewer games, the inside four of the six 46-inch screens on either side can serve as a single larger screen, displaying one game feed, as happened on the night I visited. (See top photo.)
The NHL’s own in-net and over-net cameras at each arena can also be displayed. More on those later.
Atop the entire length of the TV wall is a horizontal, visual representation of the NHL standings, featuring team logos and digital point totals for teams still alive in the playoff hunt. That was the only thing that seemed out of place, or unnecessary, because obviously it does not matter to the folks in this room which team sits where in the standings, nor how much or little any one game matters.
Here’s my video pan of “the big board”:
This is the raised platform bisecting the room lengthwise, where those running that night’s operation work. They sit at a long-stretching computer desk as they look up at the wall of TVs. The communication console on the desk is an arm’s reach away. Here’s a video clip:
With the flip of a toggle switch, an exec-in-charge can communicate directly with the video replay judge at any of the NHL’s 30 arenas. When the head referee dons his headset at the penalty box, he’s instantly patched in and can join the conversation too. Prior to each game, the trio test their devices.
The red strobes
Experience taught the NHL that not only in the Situation Room but especially for the on-site video replay judge, an audio alert — i.e., a ringing phone — to raise the other party cannot always be heard. Especially if the home team just scored and the Bridge wants to inform the video replay judge on site that the goal is under review.
Thus, when either side initiates a communication, a red strobe flashes. In the Situation Room, multiple overhead strobes flash. There’s no mistaking it.
Those on the Bridge know which arena is calling by the flashing light on the console above that arena’s toggle switch.
“Yes, Calgary, go ahead,” Murphy said into the mic on the night I was there, when the Flames’ video replay judge called to check in before the game.
A cool place
Not just by hip standards, but also thanks to air conditioning and air filtration. The temperature in that small room would soar if it wasn’t well ventilated and air-conditioned.
The work stations
The Bridge separates two room-long rows of hi-tech computer work stations. On any given day or night, the allocation is simple: one work station per game, commanded by one “technician.” (That’s Sean Ellis, the NHL’s senior manager of video operations, above.)
At each technician’s station sit four 24-inch wide, high-def computer screens. If we number them 1-4, left to right, then number 1 shows a satellite feed of the game (e.g., Sportsnet).
Numbers 2 and 3 show real-time fiber-optic feeds from different host broadcasters (e.g, Sportsnet and NBC Sports Network), which are anywhere from five to 15 seconds faster than the satellite feed. Seriously, who knew satellite feeds were so delayed?
Not all games are broadcast by more than one network. Those that are offer different views, as not all cameras are shared between broadcasters. Each broadcaster uses anywhere from 12 to 15 cameras to capture a game’s action. One broadcaster might show a crucial replay that another does not have.
Screen 4: crux of the system
Screen number 4 at each work station is by far the most important.
It is quartered to show four visual feeds. At top left: the same fiber-optic broadcast feed as screen number 2. At top right: the same fiber-optic broadcast feed as screen number 3.
At lower left and lower right, a choice of either the NHL’s own in-net cameras in each goal, or the NHL’s own above-net cameras (precisely positioned in the rafters to show a sliver of white ice between the front of the goal line and the crossbar overhead). Superimposed on both lower-quarter feeds is the exact time left in the current period.
Now here’s the crux. All eight streams of visual information on screen 4 (including the two NHL camera views not selected) are interlaced by a New York City company, to put them in exact synchronicity. The instant the puck crosses the line in one feed will be the same instant in all the others, with the precise time displayed at lower left and right.
What’s more, much like your digital cable box’s recording device at home — a DVR in the U.S., or PVR in Canada — the synchronized streams are instantly rewindable at any time, while the action you’re missing continues to record seamlessly.
So, when a potentially contentious goal is scored, that game’s technician — who has been watching live — will rewind the action on screen 4 a moment later and rewatch the action, frame by frame if necessary, from the different visual feeds.
He often can confirm a goal (or non-goal, for that matter) within seconds — before the video replay judge at the arena calls the Situation Room, and sometimes even before anyone on the Bridge can ask.
“Hey, Murph — goal in Detroit. It’s good,” that game’s technician shouted, not even five seconds after it was scored.
If the goal appears at all contentious, the executive on the Bridge informs that arena’s video replay judge to suspend play.
In the days before fiber-optic technology, when a satellite feed might have been as much as 15 seconds behind real life, the puck might already have been dropped again by the time the decision at headquarters could be made to hold on a minute.
Or, more likely, the Bridge would have held up play while they looked at replays a while longer.
Here’s a video clip of screen 4:
The NHL’s Situation Room just completed its third season of effective operation. While the NHL’s own net cams and overhead cams earn a big assist in making correct calls, the cutting-edge, “real-time” fiber-optic technology is what enables this centralized video review system to work.
“Before, our reviews could take as long as six or seven minutes,” Murphy said. “Now, at the most, no more than two or two-and-a-half minutes. Usually much faster.”
What’s more, the real-time technology actually has reduced the number of official reviews — and significantly, Murphy said.
This past season the Situation Room officially reviewed 343 plays — mostly to verify goals (for kick-ins, high-stick usage or to see if the puck really crossed the line), but also for time-clock checks. That’s about 100 reviews fewer than before the Situation Room opened in 2011-12.
The greatest benefit to the NHL’s central video operation is consistency, Murphy said. Decision-making for every game now is in the hands of only four men, who have developed precise criteria for what constitutes, say, a kicked-in goal and what does not — a ruling as difficult to discern for the layman as any of the most contentious in the NFL.
Lastly, technology enables and time allows for each game technician to flag potentially controversial calls or hits in his postgame report. If egregious, the technician crops video snippets of the play in question and sends them moments after the occurrence to top NHL executives.
Could it work in the NFL?
It sure could. And with only a few more tweaks.
Sun Media has learned that the league is already taking the biggest step in that direction. The NFL will incorporate the same real-time fiber-optic technology as the NHL’s this coming season at its version of the Situation Room in New York City.
This will enable the NFL’s vice-president of officiating, Dean Blandino, and his team to watch games in virtual real time, just as their NHL counterparts do in Toronto.
But what about the much greater concentration of reviews likely in the NFL on any given Sunday? There are significantly more plays reviewed per game in the NFL — 1.65, compared to 0.28 in the NHL.
Indeed, in raw numbers there were 423 plays reviewed in 256 NFL games in 2013, compared to 343 game-stopping plays reviewed in 1,230 NHL games in 2013-14. (The NHL reviewed another 400 or so plays that were so quickly and decisively decided as to not require a stoppage of play.)
But as in the NHL, or any league, only one play can be reviewed at a time in any game. Thus, you still require only one technician at one work station for each game even in the NFL.
Bottle-necking on the NFL’s Bridge would be the potential issue. More decision-makers need to be on hand, empowered to render replay verdicts.
How many more? On the NHL’s busiest nights, when up to 10 games can be played simultaneously, only three executive decision-makers are on hand. The NFL, which can have up to 12 games playing concurrently early on Sunday afternoons, would need perhaps as many as eight, to prevent queuing up of reviews.
Likely the biggest difference between the two leagues is that unlike in the NHL, whose area of playing-surface focus for reviews is small — almost always limited to the goal crease and a bit outside — reviewable plays in the NFL can occur anywhere on a playing field, meaning an area 120 yards long by 53 1/3 yards wide.
Even if the NFL were to install cameras at every stadium aimed precisely along the goal lines, end lines and sidelines — as per a proposed rule that got tabled at last month’s annual meeting — only domed stadiums could mount them directly overhead, a la the NHL. And at those venues you’d have to install dozens of such cameras, incrementally along all those lines, to reap the same benefits the NHL gets from its directly-overhead net cams.
But would they be as effective as the NHL’s? Probably not. For example, an overhead camera might not provide any better angle on a goal-line quarterback sneak than traditional sideline views do — simply because of the pileup of so many bodies.
And the NFL does not have those cameras now. Refs in 2013 overturned 43% of calls they reviewed upon seeing incontrovertible video evidence from existing TV camera angles. So overhead views would be nice but aren’t crucial for the NFL.
The biggest obstacle preventing the NFL from moving to a fully centralized video-review operation like the NHL’s, wherein executives at HQ decide reviews, is the entrenched mindset both in New York and in officiating circles that the on-field referee must ultimately decide replay reviews, not anyone back at headquarters.
The NHL got past that thinking and isn’t regretting the decision one bit, Murphy said.
“In the end, it’s all about getting the calls correct,” he said. “That’s what we want, that’s what the officials want, that’s what the teams want, and that’s what the fans want.”