Hockey is a game of opportunities.
The opportunity to put your skills to the test; to rise to the occasion at the most critical moment; to be a hero.
It’s a possibility for everyone who laces up a pair of skates and pulls on a uniform.
Even a referee.
Heading to the Rostraver Ice Gardens near Pittsburgh on Valentine’s Day, 18-year-old Zane Stout heard his mother Debbie telling him to be careful as he carried his gear to his car. Several more inches of snow had fallen overnight, and the roads to the rink were slick. Pulling into the icy parking lot, Stout quickly made his way through the lobby, around the rink to the far side of the building, and into the referee’s dressing room, where he and his younger partner, Kevin Backoeffer, were scheduled to work a series of three games.
The first game, the finals of a Mite weekend tournament, went smoothly, although the teams lingered on the ice for awards and pictures, pushing back the schedule by a few minutes.
Waiting in the locker room for the next game to begin, the officials heard a loud cracking sound, and then felt a tremendous wave of pressure.
“The first thing I thought was that a bomb had gone off,” Stout recalled.
What the two teenagers saw when they rushed out to the rink was like a scene from an action movie: the roof had collapsed from the weight of tons of snow and ice, littering the ice and part of the spectator area with debris.
Nothing in the USA Hockey Official Rules and Casebook covered this situation. But Stout decided that he still had a job to do, that he was still the referee in charge of this game, and he took control.
Quickly removing their skates, Stout and his partner encountered crying kids, many still in full gear, streaming out of their locker rooms. He immediately located the coaches, determined that all of the players were unhurt and accounted for, and then called 911.
At this point, no one knew how unstable the building was, and Stout noticed that parents were trying to make their way back toward their children. Using an authoritative voice (“Like my ‘No icing!’ call”), Stout calmly but firmly informed everyone that all the players were with their coaches and heading to the parking lot, and urged parents to do the same.
And they did.
“I think that the stripes helped,” Stout said. “Everyone just stopped and listened when I yelled sort of loud, and when they heard that all their kids were OK, we all got out as soon as we could. I was glad to have the ability to control that situation, because I didn’t want anyone going back into the building looking for someone who was already outside.”
Shortly thereafter, firemen arrived, and Stout informed them that the locker room area was clear.
When police came, Stout handed authority to them and then called his mom. He and his partner remained on the scene, helping to direct traffic between arriving emergency crews and frantically departing families.
While many agree that his actions were heroic, Stout insists that he “was just doing what I thought I was supposed to do as a referee.”
And there is no doubt in Stout’s mind that his seven years in the USA Hockey referee training program prepared him for that moment.
“In a way, it was a little bit like when a game starts to get out of control,” he said. “It’s our job on the ice to get that control back, to keep everyone safe. So that’s what I did off the ice. I was just glad I could help.”
When National Referee-in-Chief Dave LaBuda, Matt Leaf (Officiating Education Program Director) and the 13 District Referees-in-Chief were informed of Stout’s maturity, leadership and professionalism, it didn’t take long for them to send him a Letter of Commendation and a USA Hockey Challenge Coin (“bestowed only to those officials who display the very best qualities of officiating”).
Miraculously, it was the delay after the tournament final that cleared the arena of both players and spectators at just the right time, and what could’ve been a tragedy resulted in absolutely no injuries.
However, the disaster did leave a lot of young hockey players without a place to play.
That’s when the community spirit within USA Hockey came through, according to Brad Bujdos, president of the Mon Valley Thunder Youth Hockey Association, which calls Rostraver “home.”
“Lots of area teams contacted us, asking what they could do to help,” Bujdos said. “Some gave us free practice ice time, or split their ice so we could practice on half ice, and many made sacrifices with their own schedules to accommodate us.
“It made us feel like we were one big family, and we can’t thank those that helped us enough.”
These gestures provided only a temporary fix. With no certainty of a home rink for next season (Rostraver owner Jim Murphy is hoping for a September reopening), an emergency board meeting was held to decide the organization’s fate.
What the players and their parents decided gave Bujdos another reason to smile.
“They want to do whatever it takes to keep the Thunder jerseys on their kids’ backs,” he said. “Rather than see their kids get scattered to different organizations around the area, they want to continue to exist as the Mon Valley Thunder. We may have to drive farther than we’re used to, but we’ll do whatever we can to keep these kids together.”
It just goes to prove that if the circumstances are right, you don’t need a hockey stick in your hands to be a hero.
Mark Schraf is a chemistry professor at West Virginia University, a freelance sportswriter and a Level 3 official.