Sunday, February 23, 2003

C'mon, baby, light the lamp

Goal judge job, penalty box have plusses, minuses

By Ryan Ernst
The Cincinnati Enquirer

More than 5,000 hockey fans were waiting for the puck to drop at Cincinnati Gardens last Saturday night. But before the action began, the referee at center ice signaled each goal judge to test his goal light.

One of the goal judges was this guy. And I was asleep at the wheel.

Enquirer reporter Ryan Ernst performs duties of Goal Judge under the watchful eye of Greg Neville, the regular goal judge.
(Mike Simons photo)
| ZOOM |
When Don Helbig, Mighty Ducks vice president of communications, asked me to be an off-ice official for a game against Philadelphia, I jumped at the chance. In the first period, I would be a goal judge. Then, during the second and third periods, I would be a penalty box attendant and statistician.

And I was excited. After all, the whole idea had kind of an "honorary" feel to it, like Sam Snead at the Masters or Muhammad Ali at the 1996 Olympics. Honestly, if the old man shanks one in the woods or the champ drops the flame, the games still go on.

Then, as I later found out, there is hockey.

Any time you're ready, smart guy

"The ref will wait forever until you test your light; everybody will just be staring at you," my goal judge mentor, Greg Neville, told me. Of course, Neville told me this after alerting me to the fact that the referee, players and basically the entire building, were waiting on me for the game to begin.

So after I pressed the button on my little goal-light clicker, action got under way. My job was to press the button whenever a goal was scored at my end of the ice - as it's known in hockey, "lighting the lamp."

Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong. There are bodies and pads and sticks and ice shavings flying everywhere, and all the while the puck is skipping around at unbelievable speeds.

And inevitably, said Neville, mistakes are made. Goal judges disagree with referees on goals, the button sometimes is hit accidentally, pucks hit off the net and come out without being noticed.

That's when I noticed the goal judge at the opposite, closed, end of the arena. He sat in a little Plexiglas box, while I simply sat on a chair on a platform.

I was informed the little box locks from the inside, just in case an angry fan disagrees with a call.

Locks from the inside? I no longer wanted any part of this.

I had no box, no inside lock, no protection from the rabid hockey fans ready to tear apart the new kid for missing the biscuit in the basket.

And then: "Scratch my back with a hacksaw!" The Ducks' Brendan Yarema put one in the back of the net, and I was right on top of it. The lamp was lit, and it looked like I might just get out of this without awkwardly staving off a fan attack from my perch.

Me: 1. Guy in Cute Little Protective Plexiglas Shell: 0.

And that was how the first period ended. Mr. Helbig couldn't be mad at me. I got the Ducks a lead, now they just had to hold it. For me it was on to the penalty box where I met my new mentor, Don Tobergte.

Up close and personal

This was more like it. Sitting back, watching the action, opening a door every once in awhile. Plus, penalty box attendants get to talk to angry hockey players. At first I thought it would be funny to talk to the guys about non-hockey things. You know, "What's your favorite boy band? If you were Joe Millionaire, whom would you pick? Who's hotter, Kelly Kapowski or Kelly Taylor?" Things like that.

Any thoughts I had of getting smart with these guys, however, were erased with the arrival of our first guest, the Ducks' Mark Popovic, and his parting words for the referee.

"Awwww, (bug) off!"

"OK, sir," I thought. "I'll be over here in the corner shivering in fear until your two minutes are up. So if you need a towel, just holler ... and please don't hurt me, you big man-beast."

At some point, while I was curled in the fetal position, Philadelphia scored two goals in 18 seconds, taking the lead and setting our captive free. Our box was then vacant for a pretty good stretch, so I asked Don Tobergte about the craziest thing he ever saw. He told me a player once entered the box with bloody knuckles after a fight. The player then proceeded to draw his jersey number in blood on the inside of the boards.

"The fans ate it up," he said.

Ya think? Maybe the reason they enjoyed it so much is because it's one of the coolest things that's ever happened in the history of sport. Ever.

We then had a few more guests who talked to us a little more. But mostly they just spit and blew their noses on the floor. In fact, the penalty box should just be called the spit/snot/f-bomb box, because that's what it's full of.

At another break in the penalty action, I asked Don if pucks ever came into the penalty box. The question, which came with about 10 minutes left in the period, was answered with a very vehement "never."

At the 5:13 mark, a puck came whizzing past both our faces and slammed against the inside of the box.

Apparently, Don's idea of "never," is "watch your back." Either way, the puck went in my pocket, despite the pleas of every child in Section 20 of the Gardens. But that doesn't mean I didn't first hold it up and let all the kiddies see my triumph.

What's on tap for next time?

The last five minutes of the period went by without incident. Then I was sent packing to the rafters with the statisticians to keep track of what they called "plus/minus," a list of which players were on the ice when a goal was scored. It was a nice way to wind down the night and actually concentrate on the game. I also was reunited with Helbig, who first persuaded me to risk life and limb for this story.

But apparently that isn't good enough for Helbig.

"Next year we'll have to get you in some pads and get you in goal," he said.

Give me a Plexiglas box with an inside lock, and I'm there.


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