When the National Hockey League started using video replay in 1991, and then added a second on-ice referee seven years later, goal judges eventually became obsolete. NHL goal judges nowadays are largely symbolic.
J.D. Smith, a goal judge at Oklahoma City Barons games, said goal judges, seated in a Plexiglas box behind each net, have value during American Hockey League games.
“Sometimes the replay system doesn't work. There's not always two referees,” Smith said. “It's beneficial having another pair of eyes on the net. But I remember years ago when a goal judge's decision meant everything.”
Before replay arrived, goal judges carried a lot of weight in deciding whether a goal was scored. Referees ultimately had the final call but often acquiesced to the goal judge.
“The referee would usually go to the linesmen and ask them what they saw, then they'd ask the goal judge,” said Mark Clemons, the Barons' supervisor of off-ice officials. “We weren't allowed to nod our head. We only answered ‘yes' and ‘no' questions. The referee might ask: ‘How sure are you? Are you 90 percent sure or 100 percent sure?'”
Goal judges have been watching pucks since the NHL debuted in 1917. Nearly a century later, they have almost zero power. The NHL video goal judge sitting next to the scoreboard operator has the final decision, even over referees.
Seven years ago, NHL teams started moving goal judges to the press box or a catwalk above the ice. After all, it's prime real estate behind the net — seats that cost anywhere between $200 and $500 tickets can generate $2 million to $4 million a season.
“It might not be as important as it once was, but it's still really cool,” said Bill Brown, who has been a goal judge at approximately 50 Barons games. “You can relate to what a goalie sees. You see angles he sees, when players are trying to screen him. It's a whole different perspective. It's almost like you're part of the action.”
One golden rule for a goal judge: It's safer to be a second late than to flip the red light on when a goal wasn't scored. But even the best goal judges have an occasional gaffe.
“I still get butterflies before games,” Brown said. “I just watch the play in front of me. Some older guys advised me to just watch the net. I couldn't do it. I have to watch the play unfold.”
Smith, 73, has worked as a volunteer at Blazers and Barons hockey games for 45 years, dating back to the Triple-A Blazers in the 1960s.