With another hockey season in the books, many officials settle in to watch the NHL playoffs.
But as the men (and women) in stripes sit back in their Lay-Z-Boys to watch two months of heart-pounding hockey, should they look at it simply as an entertainment source, or can referees watch and learn?
Perhaps these high-pressure, tension-packed games can provide some valuable lessons. Take a little closer look the next time the whistle blows. How quickly do linesmen suddenly appear in the picture, and where are they going?
When an important play calls for an explanation to a coach or player, keep an eye on the poise of a referee under such demanding conditions.
Playoff nail-biters are worth watching for more than the thrills.
“Whether you agree with the choices they make or not, the degree of professionalism [NHL officials] exhibit really impresses me,” says Bob Cunningham, Central District referee-in-chief. “I mean these are huge games.”
Eric Olson, Minnesota director of officiating and the president of the Minnesota Hockey Officials Association, agrees.
“In general, [NHL officials] on-ice presence and demeanor is something all officials can learn from,” he says. “Their commitment and professionalism is incredible.”
Carrying on a civil and respectful conversation with professional players and coaches can be challenging in any game, let alone a high-stakes NHL playoff showdown.
“I like to watch the way they talk with players,” says Cunningham. “Sometimes it’s friendly, other times authoritative. At times they just listen. Their approach is usually correct, and their demeanor is so consistent. It’s just amazing.”
In some sports, officials seem to draw attention to themselves. Even in a “make-or-break” playoff game, that never appears to be the agenda of NHL officials.
“They understand their role in the game and never try to be more of a presence than necessary,” says Olson.
That’s not to say mistakes are never made.
“Sure, there are mistakes,” says Cunningham, who brings additional perspective as a minor official for the St. Louis Blues at the Keil Center. “But the few times it happens, it’s one of judgment, not rule knowledge. They seem to know every rule and application.
“You have to realize,” he continues, “these guys are fully prepared for this moment physically and emotionally, and they’ve been preparing all season, if not their whole careers.”
Shane Hanlon, referee-in-chief of the American Collegiate Hockey Association, also thinks this time of year is worth taking a closer look.
“Youth playoffs are just as important to kids as the NHL playoffs are to the pros,” he says. “That’s why, as amateurs, we should ‘take notes’ and apply them to our game.”
Matt Nilles is a registered official in Urbana, Ill.
Whistle Blower – Hockey Ref Q&A
A fixture as a referee in the National Hockey League, Philadelphia native Ian Walsh is a veteran of 280 games since his first assignment almost eight years ago.
Walsh, a proud alumnus of the USA Hockey development program, allowed USA Hockey Magazine to “corner him” with a few point-blank questions:
USA Hockey Magazine: When did you start officiating?
Ian Walsh: I started reffing when I was 15.
USAHM: Did you play hockey, and if so, for how long, or until what age?
Walsh: I played from Mite to Midget, 6-18.
USAHM: How do you mentally prepare for a game?
Walsh: I mentally visualize myself making correct calls and being in position. I concentrate on being confident and believing in myself.
USAHM: Do you have any superstitions?
Walsh: I lay out my equipment in the same exact spot in the dressing room and always have coffee before a game. That’s about it.
USAHM: What do you think is the key to getting along with coaches and players?
Walsh: The key is working with them, not against them. I try to talk to them, without talking down to them. I always try to be calm and in control of the situation.
USAHM: Do you have a most memorable refereeing moment?
Walsh: It would have to be my first NHL game. It was in New Jersey (Devils against the Anaheim Ducks, Oct. 14, 2000). Also working the Junior A National Champion-ship game in 1994.
USAHM: What is your favorite arena or city to work in?
Walsh: I have three of them: Philadelphia (my hometown), Madison Square Garden in New York and Montreal. There is just an amazing atmosphere in all of them.
USAHM: What would be your advice to a promising, young official?
Walsh: You need to work hard and be confident, but not cocky. Listen to supervisors. Talk less, listen more.
USAHM: Where do you live in the offseason, and do you work out to stay in shape?
Walsh: I live in Philly and work out in the summer by riding a bike in the gym and outside as well. I also do pilates.
USA Hockey Standard of Play and Rules
When a player holds his or her stick with both hands and checks an opponent by using the shaft of the stick with no part of the stick on the ice.