More than just corn and wheat grow in the fields of the Midwest. America’s heartland is also home to some of the best Junior hockey in North America.
While the players and coaches are usually the high-profile product of the developmental food chain, there is another group of participants who earn their stripes night after night – the officials.
The Next Step For Refs
In the current model, officials complete a series of intensive camps where they are given advanced training. Applications or invites are required to participate, and the path is extremely competitive. After “graduating,” officials find work in a league based on their skill level, and begin the slow climb through the ranks.
The new program doesn’t change this process, but makes it easier to identify candidates who have the potential to be successful at higher levels. Officials will have the chance to be supervised during several showcase events, which will give them the tool that helps most of all: game experience.
The goal is to improve quality of officiating at all levels, resulting in better skaters, more knowledge of the game, a stronger presence on the ice and the development of a life-long passion for hockey.
When hockey people hear the word official or see black and white stripes it usually conjures up images of the “missed” penalty, the “awful” call or the “worst game” ever officiated in the history of hockey.
Besides dealing with upset players, irate coaches and rabid fans, officials are scrutinized by evaluators in a way that makes an IRS audit seem like a carnival ride.
So who are these guys and what are their stories? Why would anyone want to subject himself to such abuse, both on and off the ice?
They do it for the privilege and the honor of preserving the integrity of the game. And they pay a heavy price to do it.
First and foremost is the travel. Officials never have a home game. They travel up to 30,000 miles in a season, and flights are few and far between. Officials working in the Midwest must deal with the brutal elements of winter, the floods and tornadoes of spring, and of course dodging animals on the highways. They average three deer hits a season.
Keeping the speedometer at the posted limit can also be difficult when the road is clear and you’re 200 miles from your next stop. Window shield time is tough. It gives you time to think about the game, calls, and also everything you left behind … family, friends and a normal life.
Hotels and meals on the road are part of the job. Since these road warriors are only home two to three days a week, they quickly become familiar with every diner, drive-in and dive from Toledo to Topeka. Sometimes these meals come from a value menu from a drive-thru just so you can get to the next town. Hotels can be hit or miss. You just hope the bed is comfortable, the heat works, and there’s Internet and cable TV. Sometimes that may be asking too much.
Full-time officials are relocated to league apartments across the country. They will live with two other officials who quickly become like brothers in arms. They share the same dreams and make the same sacrifices. Like brothers, they sometimes fight, have lots of fun, and share the ups and the downs. On the weekends other officials will travel through the apartments. Usually these apartments are little more than a place to pick up your mail and do your laundry.
They spend their free time scrutinizing game tapes. They are generally harder on themselves than the most boisterous coach. They strive for perfection, a rare occurrence in the take-no-prisoners world of Junior hockey.
Fellow officials are their staunchest allies and harshest critics. They learn from and teach one another.
What is the prize for this grueling odyssey? You get hired full-time by a minor professional league and spend another couple of seasons doing the same thing, but for a little more pay and in bigger cities. And after all that hard work … maybe you reach the ultimate goal, working in the NHL.
However, unlike players, you can be in the right place, be the right guy, but at the wrong time. So, if there isn’t a position available, the dream doesn’t come true.
Officials are given the difficult job to defend the honor, safety, fairness, and integrity of the game. Yet, despite the digs from the players, coaches, and fans, they look at their task as a privilege and an honor.
THE OFFICIAL PHOTOS
Photos by Robert J. Meyer