Wednesday, April 12, 2006

When they take the ice, one person in Verizon Center’s upper deck boos. Their names appear momentarily on the scoreboard minutes before faceoff. To most of the fans in attendance, they are merely Nos. 13, 40, 79 and 84.

Nothing NHL referees Dan O’Halloran (13) and Steve Kozari (40) and linesmen Mark Pare (79) and Tony Sericolo (84) do over the next few hours draws attention to themselves. More importantly, nothing warrants a call from their bosses the next morning.

That’s what they prefer.

The Washington Capitals’ game against Pittsburgh last month went seamlessly. No blatantly missed calls. No controversial goals. No brouhahas.

The officials are just glad to be working. Like the players last year, the NHL’s referees and linesmen were locked out. Back on the ice, each full-time official will work more than 70 games and has adjusted to radical rules changes that have quickened the game’s pace.

Even though Pittsburgh and Washington have two of the league’s worst records and the building is half-empty, they approach the game as they will a late-season, playoff-berth-on-the line match — because they’re always being watched. If a supervisor isn’t in attendance, one is watching from the league offices in Toronto and New York. Those evaluations dictate who receives coveted playoff assignments.

This game’s officials vary in experience from 48-year-old Pare, the most-senior linesman in the NHL (27 years, more than 1,800 games) to Kozari, 32, who splits time between the NHL and American Hockey League. O’Halloran, 41, is a 10-year veteran and Sericolo, 37, is in his seventh season.

• • •

Pregame: 1 hour, 23 minutes before faceoff

The crew arrives at the arena around 5:45 p.m. But their preparation began earlier in the day. Three of the officials worked the night before — Kozari in Columbus, Ohio; O’Halloran in Pittsburgh; and Sericolo on Long Island. They get to their Arlington hotel around mid-morning.

A possible point of discussion during lunch is the previous Penguins-Caps game on Feb. 11, which featured several first-period fights. But the officials aren’t overly concerned.

“We’re more game to game,” Sericolo says as he adjusts the laces on his skates. “We don’t really reflect on what happened previously because you can’t ever predetermine what will happen or think what might happen. Will we mention it? Probably. Will it influence us? No.”

Two of 34 NHL linesmen, Sericolo and Pare work together about 10 games a year.

The linesmen are in charge of nearly all the faceoffs — the Penguins-Caps game had 72 — and they call offsides and icing. What they don’t call anymore is the two-line pass, eliminated by the league in an effort to open up the game.

“Physically, it’s a lot more demanding for us because the speed of play has picked up,” Sericolo says. “It’s been unbelievable for hockey.”

Pare has seen the NHL change markedly since making his debut at age 21.

“The players are skating at a faster pace,” says Pare, who lives in Windsor, Ontario. “The biggest difference I see is on the power play. You can watch an old video of a power play, and it’s very static — they move the puck around without any pressure. Now, the penalty killers go after the puck carrier every time to force turnovers and not let them set up.”

The officials’ all have a pregame routine. Pare and Kozari ride stationary bikes, and Sericolo jumps rope. O’Halloran reviews his rule book and goes through stretching exercises. They take the ice at 7:04 p.m.

• • •

First period: Caps 3, Penguins 1

O’Halloran calls the first penalty 4:40 into the game when Penguins defenseman Ric Jackman is whistled for hooking. Naturally, he objects.

“I didn’t do anything,” Jackman protests

“I guess I’m hallucinating again,” O’Halloran replies.

Kozari calls his first penalty at the 14:17 mark when Caps captain Jeff Halpern goes off for interference. This is the first time Kozari, who lives in British Columbia, has worked a game involving the Penguins and Caps, so he expects to be tested by both benches.

“I’ll be the rookie out there tonight,” he says beforehand. “Every call I make, they’ll probably have questions.”

Kozari is in a stretch of 13 AHL and NHL games in 16 days. He made his NHL debut Oct. 15 in St. Louis.

“It’s amazing,” he says. “It was a dream come true to be standing there for the anthem because I had worked a long time to make it to the NHL, and it was finally there that night. I’ll never forget that game.”

Asked whether he’s more excited to work Penguins-Caps than Manitoba-Omaha, Kozari says: “That’s a tough one to answer because I like to treat every game the same and do the same job every night. But obviously this is the best league in the world to work, and I’m pretty excited to go out there tonight and do a good job.”

Kozari is one of 10 referees who work AHL and NHL games. The league will choose from that pool during the offseason should referees retire and/or not be retained.

On the same sequence Kozari sends Halpern off, Pittsburgh defenseman Sergei Gonchar cross-checks a Caps player after the whistle. During the ensuing timeout, O’Halloran talks with Gonchar.

“He was [ticked] about getting hit earlier in the shift,” O’Halloran says. “I told him, ‘Look, if you’re going to give out shots like that, you’re going to have to take some, too, or we’re going to start calling penalties.’

“Behind the scenes, those are the things we try to do to prevent a future incident from happening later. It might not help, but sometimes it works.”

• • •

Second period: Caps 4, Penguins 2

The referees award 10 penalties in the second period. The first call goes against the Caps’ Chris Clark 92 seconds into the period. Skating to the penalty box, he moans to O’Halloran, who is ready to call him for interference.

“He had the puck,” Clark says.

“OK, then it’s roughing,” O’Halloran replies.

“That’s better,” Clark replied, according to O’Halloran.

Later in the locker room, the referee adds: “I had a multitude of options — charging, roughing, interference. … Interference doesn’t sound tough — so I gave him the roughing call.”

Laughter fills the room.

An Ontario native, O’Halloran lives in suburban Detroit and has an interview this week to become a U.S. citizen. He worked his first NHL game in October 1995 following apprenticeships in the junior and minor league ranks. The debut was special because his son, Devin, now 15, had undergone a liver transplant earlier that year but was able to travel to Pittsburgh.

When O’Halloran entered the league, the NHL was a one-referee operation. That changed in 1997-98. There are 33 full-time referees and 10 referees that float between the AHL and NHL. Under the two-referee system, O’Halloran and Kozari will skate an estimated five miles during the game.

“There was an adjustment period for all of us in regard to where we had to be and how we separated the ice,” O’Halloran says. “We’re teamed up with three or four guys and work with them more than just once or twice a season, so that helps.”

The second period included a rare diving call. The Caps’ Steve Eminger hooked Pittsburgh’s Konstantin Koltsov and a delayed penalty was called. An instant later, Koltsov went down again but without any help. O’Halloran made both calls.

“I was already going to call the penalty — he didn’t have to embellish the fall,” he says. “With the standards we’re calling hooking and holding and tripping, the players don’t have to try and fall down to sell the call for us. They used to think we had to do that a lot.”

• • •

Third period: Caps 6, Penguins 3

Pittsburgh makes it 4-3 early in the third period, but Alex Ovechkin and Matt Pettinger scored the final two goals to give Washington its first win over the Penguins this season. In all, 17 penalties — all two-minute minors — are enforced during the game.

The only surprise of the game was a pigeon that worked its way into the arena and landed on the ice several times. All four officials said that was a first. Other than the flying intruder, they agree the game was nondescript.

Sericolo is the first one dressed in his suit for the cab ride back to the hotel. This was his third consecutive night with a game and his fifth game in seven nights. But he says it beats the alternative.

Like the rest of the officials, Sericolo spent last year’s lockout at home (Loudonville, N.Y.), not working and receiving only minimal compensation from the league. As an association, the officials voted not to work any minor league or college games, thus taking work away from those officials. Sericolo became Mr. Mom, tending to kids ages 7, 5 and 2.

“I have a newfound respect for people who stay home with the kids because it’s a tough job,” he says.

By 10 p.m., the crew is dressed and munching on Domino’s pizza. The referees are delivered DVD copies of the game to review on their laptops.

If they don’t receive a call from the NHL office, it means theirs was a job well done and one more step toward working a playoff round.

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