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File - Linesman Dan Schacte (L) and referee Dan Marouelli (R) hold back Colorado Avalanche's Ville Nieminen as he argues a boarding penalty during the first period against the New Jersey Devils in Game 3 of the NHL Stanley Cup Finals in East Rutherford, May 31, 2001. REUTERS/Mike Segar (MIKE SEGAR)
File - Linesman Dan Schacte (L) and referee Dan Marouelli (R) hold back Colorado Avalanche's Ville Nieminen as he argues a boarding penalty during the first period against the New Jersey Devils in Game 3 of the NHL Stanley Cup Finals in East Rutherford, May 31, 2001. REUTERS/Mike Segar (MIKE SEGAR)

The Usual Suspects

Who's minding the refs? Add to ...

Overheard Saturday on Hockey Night In Canada: "Thanks, Ron. We're looking at an upset here tonight for the visitors as Dennis LaRue is refereeing. As we all know, road teams were 17-3 last season through December when LaRue was calling a game …" Actually we made that up. Not the statistic about LaRue (he was the patron saint of visiting teams hoping for a win) but the stuff about anyone on TV ever revealing so compelling a stat.

Network TV analysis is equal measures of gut feel, witty remark, going by the book and bluster - perhaps best exemplified by the now-departed Joe Morgan. Or Matt Millen. If you want the skinny on what you're watching you must consult the shadowy gambling realm that dare not have its name spoken on TV, even if though it powers ratings in virtually every sport.

Really, who are you going to believe? The bettors who make their living getting it right or the talking heads who get paid even if they get it wonky? Just read the book written by disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy, who went to jail for proving that you can make serious dough by betting referees in the NBA. While the NBA and the associated leagues tut-tutted that all was in order with its zebras, the fact is Donaghy helped the wise guys make a stash by handicapping fellow referees' tendencies.

And if you think that's all in the past, we have swampland to sell you. Take a stroll through various gaming websites that track NHL referees like LaRue (considered the best U.S.-born ref ever) who are friendly to the visitor, umpires who reward bettors with the "over" using a smaller strike zone or NBA referees who, well, take your pick from homers to overs to visiting favourites. (Sample nugget: Dave Banfield, an occasional NHL ref, saw the home team win seven of his first eight games last year - by an average of more than two goals a game.) This is not to say refereeing is corrupt. Leagues are vigilant. Zebras do their best. But trends develop over time. There are no easy fortunes betting these trends, but a steady profit if you spot a trend before the league does and cracks down on said umpire or referee. And make no mistake, the leagues are watching these stats even when the TV types are silent as the tomb on the subject.

So don't count on hearing a peep about any of this from the Fox TV NFL  savants or the myriad NHL panels who are supposed to be the final word on insider dope. They'll show you 50 different ways to execute the breakout pass on the telestrator. But the thing you most want to know (who's going to win?) is summed up by Churchill's famous "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

Just The Fox, M'am:

What's funnier than the Fox TV guys coming back off another Frank Caliendo item they don't get? It's like rubes at the midway seeing the bearded lady. Curt Menefee: "That was good …" Michael Strahan: "Ha ha, hee heee!" Jimmy Johnson: "It's amazing, he looks just like the people he impersonates!" Terry Bradshaw: "Frank, that turruble. Hey, I sound like Charles Barkley, too."

Charles In Charge:

The NHL Network - owned by the league in co-operation with TSN - is being fine-tuned by the league. Having taken over creative direction of the NHL Network from TSN, the league is currently assessing the product. Former NFL executive Charles Coplin has been brought in as executive vice-president for content to brand the product. (Did we just say "brand the product?" Shoot us now.) Currently the network is lost in the glut of Canadian sports networks. In the U.S. it's in witness protection among the back tiers of cabledom. How to make it sticky? (Did we just say "sticky?" Shoot us now.) Coplin, who was brought up in that hockey hotbed of Miami, does not necessarily see the network hiring big names the way MLB.com did with Bob Costas and Peter Gammons, but he does see a stepped-up role in reporting news.

"If the right person or persons make sense, we may bring in someone who brings name recognition," Coplin told Usual Suspects. "But most of all, we want to be the place where people go to hear about the big stories - particularly in the United States." Expect a gradual move to a beefed-up news-gathering element as the NHL tries to expand its footprint in the U.S., where a number of its franchises are currently struggling at the gate.



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