Living The Dream

The Road To The Top Doesn’t Have To Be A Lonely Journey For Up-And-Coming Officials

 

 

Cameron Dykstra, Bobby Esposito and Logan Gruhl all dream of overcoming steep odds and skating in the National Hockey League someday. 

But, outside of family and friends, the trio doesn't attract nearly the same adoration as the dozens of high-end prospects they share the ice with during United States Hockey League games. To put it mildly, rarely, if ever, will the three receive an ovation for their work.

That comes with the territory and requires awfully thick skin. 

Fortunately for Dykstra, Esposito and Gruhl, they can lean on the support of teammates, mentors and coaches within USA Hockey's Officiating Development Program.

Support Network For Stripes

Just as important as providing aspiring young officials assistance in the physical, mental and judgment aspects of the game, the program lends emotional support for what can be a thankless profession. (See Sidebar.) And it has experienced its fair share of success, as the vast majority of U.S.-born officials in the NHL previously plied their trade in the Officiating Development Program.

"It's very important to have that support system in place," said Gruhl, a 24-year-old referee from Richmond, Va., who has been officiating for 10 years. "It's a really long season, and we all have our ups and our downs. Everybody has a bad game, and obviously, we want to limit the bad games or the bad calls we make. 

"It's a lot of travel that can get dicey in the winter. There are a lot of outside factors, too, that you might not think of. But, by being together and learning from each other, we're pushing each other to get better. At the end of the day, all of us want the same thing. We all want to get to the next level. Us being together throughout the season is so vital in that happening, because we're all on the same schedule and we're all chasing the same goals."

Strength In Numbers

During the season, Dykstra, Esposito and Gruhl all live in a Des Moines, Iowa, duplex with three more members of the Officiating Development Program. USA Hockey's program supports similar living arrangements in Omaha, Neb., and Chicago to make travel a little more convenient. 

More than just the convenience, these homes provide a unique support system, not only for the more permanent residents but also for officials who would like to connect with familiar faces while on the road during weekends. They offer a warmer setting than hotels, another factor in the nomadic lives of aspiring professionals.

"We all push each other, so it's important to be around each other as much as we are," said Esposito, a 24-year-old from Bridgewater, N.J., who began officiating at age 15. "We all have a pretty competitive nature to us. If two guys say, 'Hey, let's go to the gym to work out,' and you say no, they might get on you a little bit. That motivates you to do what you know is the right thing, and you join them. It's kind of like a brotherhood. 

"It's important for some of the younger guys to live with more experienced guys, so you get to see what they're doing to be successful. It's also great because you can come back from a game, show your colleagues a video clip, and you have five other referees to offer their opinion. It's good to be in a location where everyone can give their feedback."

Refresh & Recharge

Hockey doesn't consume the aspiring officials' lives, although they do try to hit the ice on their off days for conditioning and frequently brush up on the rule book. Gruhl holds a part-time position as a tennis instructor, Esposito serves as a substitute teacher and Dykstra takes classes online.

"We have a lot of free time, so it's important to have a chance to kind of escape hockey," Esposito said. "Not every single second of my day is spent around hockey, so, when I do go to hockey, it allows me to be refreshed and be all about it.

"We all kind of have our separate things to do during the week, but we still like to do things together-like go to the gym, have movie night, trivia night, and we eat meals together. That creates kind of like a family outside of our immediate families."

Fast Track To The Top

USA Hockey created the Officiating Development Program more than 20 years ago to coach, train and develop officials so they can advance to higher levels of hockey. A tiered structure gives them training at all levels of Junior hockey, so they're prepared to advance. 

"We ask a lot out of young individuals to leave home, live on their own, travel thousands of miles in the Midwest or around the country in less than ideal conditions. So, we try very hard to provide support systems off the ice, in terms of people they can call, people they can talk with to support their mental health as well as their physical well-being," said Scott Zelkin, the manager of the program. 

"We're not ignorant to the demands we place on these guys. When they are away from the rink, it can be a lonely, challenging job, especially when you're working at the lower levels out of the spotlight."

The program often accepts officials who might be raw but demonstrate potential and the basic foundation-athleticism, skating, judgment and willingness to learn-to become successful. The majority of officials in the program started out as hockey players before joining the third team on the ice. For some, it started as a way to make a little extra cash. For others, it became an avenue to stay in the game after their playing days are behind them.

"The program has been awesome to me," said Dykstra, a 21-year-old linesman from Dallas in his third season with the program. "It kind of gave me a second shot at hockey. It's not as glorious as playing, but it's still a lot of fun and the camaraderie is even greater than when you're playing. On a team, you have 23-24 guys, but here it's a much smaller group and you spend a lot of hours together in a car and living with each other. It can be a thankless job at times, but it's awesome. 

"You're living away from home for nine months, and not many people really want to do that. We're working hockey games every Friday and Saturday night. It's a lot of travel. But, I don't know that any one of us would really consider those things a sacrifice. Those are just the things we do for a job we love."

Self-Reflection

Experience in the USHL and North American Hockey League provides a foundation to be successful at the professional level. And just like high-level players, officiating requires a physical component. But the mental side requires plenty of training, as well. 

Zelkin said the Officiating Development Program staff compiles weekly video packages to reinforce proper positioning and calls and to raise awareness to situations that require attention.

The staff hosts a training camp before the season, various meetings throughout the season and video calls. Zelkin also asks his officials to provide self-evaluation with a critical eye. 

"I can say, without a doubt, nobody's more critical of their work than they are themselves," Zelkin said. "They're very passionate about the work they do. They'll go back and look at a game, and their goal is to be better as well. The ones who are the most successful are the ones who put the time in off the ice. We try to provide them the tools to help them accomplish that." 

Jim Leitner is a freelance writer based in Dubuque, Iowa.


 

Issue: 
2019-12

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