Remembering When Goal Judges Turned on the Red Lights Behind the Net

As technology continues to advance in professional sports the human element in making judgment calls on plays appears to be quickly eroding. 

In baseball, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN that some form automated home plate umpiring will be introduced in the major leagues next season. He said: “One possibility is for the automated system to call every pitch and transmit the balls and strikes to a home plate umpire via an ear piece. Another option is a replay review system of balls and strikes with each manager getting several challenges a game. Last year trials were done at the minor league level.

For decades NHL hockey fans will recall that goal judges sat in plexiglass cages stationed in the front row directly behind both goalies ready to turn the red light on signaling a goal. (Beginning in the early 90’s their decisions could be reviewed on a video replay and sometimes overturned.)  By the mid-2000s goal judges were relocated to higher locations in the arenas before finally, after the 2018-2019 season, the position was eliminated. Now a video goal judge activates the goal lights from the video replay booth.

On November 15, 2002, as part of an assignment for the Detroit Free Press, I stood behind goal judge Jack MacRobert (68 at the time) for the Red Wings game and I also spoke with Chuck Sneddon (74) who that evening took a break from the job and instead manned the penalty box. Even though they occasionally worked shifts in the penalty box where they say they have a much better view of the game, both preferred the goal judge position because they felt part of the game.

Sneddon had retired from Detroit Edison’s marketing department in 1990 after 42 years. “Some people may think I’m nuts but it’s a thrill to be a goal judge,” said Sneddon who had been a goal judge since 1957 at Olympia Stadium.  Together at that point the duo had 73 combined years as goal judges.  .

Each received $60 per game. For years the only compensation they received were two free tickets even though they would say they had the best seat in the house. The NHL finally stepped in and required that the goal judges be paid.

Wearing gray slacks, a tie, and a blue blazer with the NHL crest, after the National Anthem MacRobert climbed up four steps and into his 6 feet by 3 foot plexiglass box and sat on a stool next to the light switch 10 feet above the ice directly behind the net in the first row.

Watching the game from that unique perch MacRobert looked like a bird of prey, cool calm and collected with his head moving in the puck’s direction even if was at the far end. He was ever mindful of surprising ricochets off the boards as the pucks are slapped sometimes over 120 miles per hour.

Both men said that the most challenging call happened when several players are battling for position in front of the goal and the shot is deflected into the top of the net. The most intense time is when the score is tied with less than a minute to play or the game is in overtime. Two years before MacRobert flicked on the red light with one tenth of a second left in the game.

At times earplugs could have come in handy for the goal judges.

“When the puck hits our glass out front it sounds like a bomb going off because it resonates so much inside our box,” said Sneddon.

That night, right in front of MacRobert with 20 seconds left in overtime, Sergei Fedorov scored the winning goal as the Wings defeated the Anaheim Ducks.

After MacRobert stepped down from his box he told me, “Now that was an exciting game” before he headed to the Red Wing alumni room for postgame refreshments.

MacRobert told me that  people waiting in the wings to take over his job and that they often asked him when he planned on quitting.

“I just tell them, ‘when I die you can have it,’” he said.

Little did he know that the job wouldn’t be around much longer.