It has to be one of the toughest and most thankless jobs in hockey – one that calls for travel 22 days each month; breaking up fights between grown, sweaty, emotionally-charged, weapon-yielding men; and enduring the passionate, belittling judgment from thousands of people on a nightly basis who may – or many times may not – know what they’re talking about.
Such is the life of an NHL on-ice official.
Unbeknownst to many fans of the game, officials are bred and discovered much in the same way an NHL player is. They start out officiating minor hockey, and work their way up into the junior ranks where there are NHL scouts who identify officials with potential. Those with the most potential are placed onto what’s called a ‘prospects list’ and invited to the officials’ training camp, where their progress is monitored. Those who exhibit qualities necessary to become an NHL referee or linesman are then signed to contracts.
“Then they’ll go into the American Hockey League and develop their skills down there,” explains Rob Shick, Officiating Manager for the NHL. “Once we have guys retire or when a position opens, we bring our next guy up, pretty much right along the same lines as a hockey team.”
All 33 referees and 33 linesmen are required to attend an annual training camp, where they must pass a medical test before they are allowed to take the ice. They are held to strict conditioning requirements and are given a multitude of tests, including body fat measurements among others. Once they’ve met all the requirements, they are deemed fit for the season.
Unlike the rest of the NHL schedule, which comes out in entirety months in advance, the officials – who are based all over North America – are only given their schedules about 60 days out.
“The reason we don’t put it out for the whole year is if we have injuries, we have to make too many changes,” Shick says.
Once each official has his itinerary, it is his own responsibility to book travel and accommodations through a central travel agency. Although this system offers the flexibility to use their airlines and hotels of choice, flying commercial has its pitfalls.
“That’s probably the most difficult part of our job – clubs charter after games and they have their airplanes -- and we have to get up and get on a flight the next day,” elaborates Shick. “We’re allowed to work up to three games, back to back to back, and there are times when the travel gets a little difficult and you’re tired, but you just grin and bear it and do the best you can.”
Many officials live in cities where there are no NHL teams, and the ones that do live in NHL cities may only work four to five games in that building each season, as the officials’ schedule does not take into consideration places of residence. Considering that each official is contracted for 72 regular season games per year puts the amount of travel in perspective.
The grueling travel schedule played a large part in Shick’s decision to retire from on-ice officiating back in 2009 after a 25-year career in the NHL.
“I wanted to come off the ice and spend more time with my sons and watch their football games and watch them grow up a little more,” says Shick, who has two teenage boys.
Shick, who currently resides in Temecula, California, grew up around hockey in a small town on Vancouver Island, and his father was a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. Shick began officiating at the age of 15 and calls himself fortunate to be able to make a career out of the game he loves.
In Shick’s current role as one of four NHL officiating managers, he oversees the on-ice officials, is responsible for identifying trends in the game, and is also available as a resource to team coaches and general managers. Although his job still requires him to travel, he is able to make his own schedule.
“Hopefully I can try to make a difference to our young officials,” comments Shick. “I guess you want to fast track the learning experience for them in regards to using my experience and trying to pass that along to them.”
One of the biggest things Shick is hoping to impress upon the new generation of officials is something that he strived to perfect throughout his career – how to keep the game fair and safe.
“That’s one of the intangibles you learn as you get more experience in officiating – to learn to control emotions in a game and understand what’s emotion and what’s abuse and to work with the players and coaches so everybody gets a fair shake,” Shick says. “If a referee can do that the players will see that and respect that.”
*Look for Part II tomorrow on LAKings.com
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*Special thanks to Dean Ferraro for writing in and suggesting this feature story topic*