As many of my friends and family are aware, I've wanted to be a hockey referee for a number of years. Why? Mostly because I love the game of hockey. There are, however, other reasons - I think calling penalties and rule infractions in a high-speed game like ice hockey is a challenging and interesting endeavor. I also highly enjoy skating, and I like to give back to my community when I can. Finally, while most hockey fans (and really, fans of any sport) don't realize it, the game would not be possible without the referees. Referees play a vital role in keeping the game from degrading into a five-on-five boxing match on ice, and we enforce aspects of the rules that enable the game to remain fast-paced and skill-oriented. We also serve as teachers about the rules of the game to players, coaches, and sometimes even fans.
How does one become a hockey referee? Well, my experience is probably not like the experiences of others. In fact, my guess is that many referees probably have interesting stories about how and why they became a referee, but one thing I learned while training for this particular side-career is that I am almost completely unique in the art of hockey officiating, as I have never played hockey prior to this season. That said, I love the spectator aspect of the game, and truth be told, I enjoy the ritualistic nature of the signaling that referees use to communicate.
The governing body for youth hockey in the United States is USAHockey. Other organizations, such as the NHL and NCAA, have their own referees, each of whom may or may not be affiliated with USAHockey. It's even possible that one could become a referee for one of these higher-level organizations without first working in youth hockey, but I definitely want to hone my skills and become a better referee before advancing to a level of competition like that1.
USAHockey has four referee classification levels, aptly numbered level 1-4. Every new referee must start out at level 1, which enables them to work games up to the "peewee" classification (typically 12 and under, but it can vary by district and association). A referee can, hypothetically, advance to the next level after they have spent a season at the previous level. So, hypothetically, I could advance to level 2 next season. Often, though, a referee will spend several seasons at levels 2 and 3 in order to get their skills in a shape where they feel they can handle the demands at a higher level. I've spoken with a couple of officials who don't want to referee high school or adult games, and thus keep their certifications lower so they don't get scheduled for these.
Every referee must attend a seminar at the beginning of each season in order to refresh their knowledge of the rules and skills necessary for conducting a game. Unfortunately, I didn't get into a seminar until late last November (the last seminar of the 2012-2013 season, actually). Each area in USAHockey is broken up into districts. Officials typically officiate games in districts near where they live (to minimize travel time). Each district has their own rules and regulations that an official must meet before being assigned games. In the district in which I live, Minnesota District 6, one of these requirements is to attend a district meeting (held in August, September, and early October of each season) before being assigned to ref games. What this meant was that by the time I received my certification for level 1, I was unable to officiate games for the regular 2012-2013 season in district 6, as I wasn't able to attend one of these meetings.
I tried contacting a number of other districts in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, but they were all full for the 2012-2013 season. Fortunately, though, the scheduler for district 6 also helps schedule games for Minnesota's summer hockey program, called "Showcase". I was able to start being assigned to games starting in mid-April of 2013.
The First Game
During the seminar, one of the big topics they kept discussing was that your first game is typically quite difficult. Every referee, regardless of experience, makes mistakes. Newer referees will, for obvious reasons, make more mistakes than more experienced referees2. I definitely realized at my first game that I had skills that needed to be honed. Not the least of these skills was my ability to skate. That's right - I fell twice during the game. One of these extravagant falls was caught on video by my wife. Feel free to view it and laugh at my mixture of (bad) figure skating and hockey officiating:
So what do you do when you fall in front of a bunch of people when you're trying to keep control of a game like this? Get back up on your skates and try not to do it again - which is exactly what I did (well, that, and practice your skating skills in your off time to try and not get into the situation again).
Obviously, it's important for a referee to know the rules of ice hockey. The officials are supposed to be the experts in how the game of ice hockey is played. So much is this the case, that in order to become a referee (at all levels of USAHockey), one must pass officiating exams. As you increase in level, you're expected to be able to achieve better and better scores on these exams. About 20% of the questions on these exams cover officiating practices (e.g. how one should skate to keep play in view, where one should be positioned when the play is in certain areas of the ice, etc), with the remaining 80% covering the rules of ice hockey.
In this area, at least, I am most certainly an expert. Or, more accurately, I thought I was. I have been watching ice hockey almost my entire life. My parents literally took me to watch college hockey games when I was 3 and 4 years old. What I didn't realize is that there are fundamental differences to the way ice hockey is played at the youth level versus at the college or adult level. In general, the rules of the game are very similar, but there are a few rules that take some getting used to. For one thing, in college hockey, every faceoff is at a faceoff spot on the ice. This isn't true in youth hockey. It's possible to have a faceoff at a "last play" faceoff location, which could be anywhere along an imaginary line connecting the end zone faceoff spots lengthwise across the ice.
The other major difference in youth hockey is the immediate offsides rule3. In most ice hockey games (aside from the youth level), the concept of "tag-up" offsides (sometimes called a "slow whistle") is used. Basically, this means that, provided the attacking team doesn't have possession and control of the puck, the puck can be in the attacking zone with attacking players offside. Once attacking players all make skate contact with the blue line at the same time, the offsides infraction is waived, and play continues. If, however, the attacking team takes possession of the puck before all players make skate contact with the blue line, then the play is blown dead, and the faceoff takes place at the nearest faceoff location in the neutral zone (unless it was intentional, in which case it will take place in an end zone).
With immediate offsides, as soon as the puck crosses the blue line with attacking players offside, the play is blown dead. The only real exception to this is if the defending team passes the puck backward into their defending zone, in which case the official at the blue line should waive the offsides violation.
Number of Referees on the Ice
One other interesting area where USAHockey differs from the adult classifications is in the number of on-ice officials. Typically, in collegiate and professional ice hockey, there are four officials on the ice during the game: two referees and two linesmen4. In youth hockey, there are either three officials (one referee and two linesman), or two officials (two referees). The two-official system is the most common for me, since all youth hockey up to about the high school level utilize this system. Originally, I thought it would be difficult to get used to, since I'm used to each on-ice official having a specific role to play in the game, and this seemed like it could get confusing when two referees handle everything. Fortunately, it's not actually that difficult to learn. The basic rule of thumb is that the two referees, in general, have equal power to call penalties and infractions, and should be situated in such a way so they are 1) not in the same zone, and 2) diagonally across from one another.
Skating Fast and Hard
Learning on the ice is tricky. I've been skating since I was probably six years old, but not all of that time have I been continually practicing my skating abilities. When I finally decided to become an official, I had to learn a number of ice skating techniques in a fairly quick manner in order to simply stay on my feet when officiating a game. It's also humbling to be officiating a game where the ten-year-old players are better skaters than you are. The thing is, nothing teaches quite as quickly as a trial by fire, so after a few games, my skating skills have drastically improved. It's a skill that will likely need to be practiced my entire life to master, though. In a way, it's much like riding a bike - once you learn, it comes back pretty quickly, but that doesn't mean you can't make a fool of yourself if you don't practice regularly and develop the skills you need to master it and make it look easy.
Details, Details, Details...
As I said in the previous paragraph, learning on the ice is tricky. There's a lot going on. There are ten skaters on the ice, all of which are trying desperately to get the puck into the opposing net. They are randomly swapping players in and out of play, so at any given time, you might have players coming up from behind you, or about to cut in front of you. You have a solid 3-inch diameter piece of frozen black rubber that may be making its way toward your head or body, as well as twelve sticks that could potentially become deadly weapons if you get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. You have to think and process plays extremely quickly, as you often only get a single chance to make a call on a given play. You have to be focusing on staying out of the way, while at the same time focusing on where the puck is, who has possession, who last had possession, who last had possession before that (as you can award up to two assists for every goal), what the other players are doing that don't have the puck, where your partner is, and, in my case, how fast I'm going and whether or not I'll be able to stop without crashing into something or someone. All this, oh, and by the way, you've got a ton of people screaming at you (or at players on the ice, sometimes I don't know, since I can't really hear them).
So, needless to say, you need to keep focused. Let me give you an example of what I mean. The other night, a scrimmage match (exhibition game) between two teams in Minneapolis was open and didn't have a referee. I volunteered, because, being at the experience level I am right now, every game I can get makes me a better ref. What I didn't realize at the time is that scrimmage matches typically only have one referee on the ice. That was probably the fastest and most exhausting game I've been on the ice for to date.
Here I am, in the middle of watching a play in one of the end zones, and I see what looks like a clear tripping penalty. I raise my arm, and wait for the team that committed the infraction to get possession of the puck, which happens after about eight agonizingly long seconds. I blow my whistle to indicate the play is dead, and signal the tripping penalty by taking my non-whistle hand and swiping it across my leg just below the knee. First of all, this was incorrect. I should have pointed to the player that committed the penalty first, but even more of an error was that I looked down at my hand as I'm making the tripping signal. I knew it as soon as I did it, too, that I was in trouble. Sure enough, I look back up from my tripping signal and realize: I don't remember who committed the penalty. There are three kids in the vicinity of where the penalty happened, so I know it is one of these three, but I don't know which one.
Now what? Well, one of the things that they kept talking about in the officiating seminars is "Everyone makes mistakes. You're going to make a bad call once in a while. The key is, you need to sell it." In other words, have confidence in your calls and do your best to get them right. So, I pointed to one of the three kids and verbalized the penalty. He comes over to me and says, "But I didn't do it." I asked him, "Ok, well then who did?" He responds, "Um... I don't know." "Well, sorry bud," I say, "I guess I'm calling it on you." The coaches didn't argue, nor did any of the other players, so I thought that perhaps I picked the right kid and he was just trying to get out of a penalty, but I'm still unsure.
I definitely don't mean to sound arrogant or infallible about that call. If the kid had told me, "Well, number 6 was the one that tripped him", then I would have changed the penalty call to be called on number 6. But, regardless of the fact that I messed up the individual who committed the infraction, I witnessed a tripping infraction from a team, and that team needed to be assessed a penalty.
Being a hockey referee is much more complicated than it looks. There's a lot to think about when you're on the ice. When I was in the seminar last November, one of the things the instructors spent time doing was teaching us about how to conduct a proper faceoff. This is trickier than it sounds. Players can be moving, but, aside from the centers, they can't be inside of a circle ten feet in diameter, centered around the faceoff spot. Often, the instructors mentioned, you'll have to tell the kids to back up. If they don't back up, or they don't get in position, you may have to eject the center and start the faceoff again. Inevitably, you're going to hear the phrase shouted from the stands, "Drop the puck!" The instructors laughed about this, saying, "Yeah, it's never the players fault. You never hear them shout 'Get in position!'".
So, I expressed this frustration to my brother, Kyle. He has a tendency to do some crazy things from time to time. When my sister, mother, Kyle, and I went to the WCHA Final Five this past March to celebrate his birthday, we heard one of the fans expressing their (probably drunk) disapproval of the linesmen by uttering those exact words - "Drop the puck!" So, taking it in stride, Kyle gets up on his feet (we're ten rows up from the ice, right behind the goal - pretty close to the linesman conducting the faceoff), and yells, "Hey guys! GET IN POSITION!" He then calmly sits back down, and turns to me and says, "Well, now you can't say that everyone only picks on the refs."
As the age classification increases, so does the intensity. I've found, from my limited experience so far, that some coaches (and parents) can be extremely intense. It's possible that I might not want to ref at higher levels than youth hockey. I truly believe that the game of ice hockey is just that - a game. Tempers flare, and words can sometimes get heated, but, in the end, the point is to have fun. That includes the referees - I am doing this because, right now, it's fun for me. I don't know if I would want to officiate a game where that's not the case, so it's entirely possible that I might never officiate a college, Olympic, semi-pro, or professional match. ↩
There's a saying from a computer scientist named Jim Horning that goes something like "Good judgement comes from experience; Experience comes from exercising poor judgement". I think that this is especially true of referees, since "poor judgement" usually translates into a bad call. All of the referees I've spoken with have told me they have made their share of bad calls over the years - the key is to learn from them, accept that they are bad, and be willing to be flexible to change and improve your skills. ↩
The offsides rule in ice hockey is somewhat tricky, so I'll likely discuss it in more detail in a future blog post. ↩
This wasn't always the case. The NCAA changed the rules of ice hockey a few years ago to include an additional referee. Previously, there were three officials on the ice: a single referee and two linesmen. ↩