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More to officiating than reading the rule book

by Shawn P. Roarke /

Training camp isn't only for the players.  NHL officials gathered Monday for preseason training at the 2007 NHL Officials Training Camp in northern Ontario. 
THORNBURY, Ontario -- Anyone can blow a whistle. But that clearly doesn’t mean anyone is qualified to officiate an NHL game.

Or as you might say; “Officiating doesn’t build character, it reveals it.” At the NHL level, the revealed character must be impeachable for the process to work.

That lesson was driven home Monday during the 2007 NHL Officials Training Camp at the Beaver Valley Community Center in this northern Ontario resort region.

With 75 NHL officials gathered for preseason training, it quickly became evident that the character and mental fortitude of the League’s officials was of paramount concern to NHL Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom.

This is the third training camp that has focused intensely on team-building exercises. Kesa, an organizational development firm based in Alberta, was brought in to lead many of the exercises during the camp.

Executives Mark Bosworth and Dave Hoy were on hand to present leadership principles and lead the officials through role-play situations designed to drive those points home.

“We want to change the officials’ culture to a team culture,” Walkom said. “The way to do that is to establish some team objectives and institute some performance norms as a team so that we could achieve those objectives and goals.

“So, we felt the best way to accomplish that was to bring in some team builders and Kesa was brought in to build the team and to achieve our goals of better communication among the members of the team.”

As a result, Monday’s emphasis was on classroom training, not on-ice activities. Much like NHL players, today’s NHL referees are expected to show up in prime physical condition, already in position to handle the rigors of a nine-month season.

That shift in emphasis has been an evolutionary process, says veteran referee Kerry Fraser, who has been working NHL games since 1980.

“We went at that time for two weeks to training camp,” Fraser recalled. “Back then, it was coming to camp to get into shape and then we embarked on our preseason games. Now, we are expected, as we all do, to be ready to be tested for fitness. We have high expectations and high standards that we have to achieve. So, things have really shifted focus.”

Fraser actually believes that the shift has become necessary as the refereeing profession has become even more serious and more scrutinized. The shift accelerated even more, says Walkom, when the NHL went to a four-man officiating crew, leaving the one-referee, two-linesman system behind.

Again, it is a case of anybody can blow a whistle; but only a select few are qualified enough to do it in the professional and unbiased manner the NHL demands.

“It’s the mental side of the job that separates the great referees from the not-sos,” Fraser said. “You can learn through experience and you can learn through the experience of others where junior people work with senior people.

“In workshops like these and in doing role plays like these, there is tremendous benefit, particularly for the younger people, to see how a situation creates win-win situations and that is what we hope to achieve here.”

Despite the unmistakable small-town and homey vibe of the BVCC hall, it was relatively easy to mistake Monday’s gathering for a casual weekend meeting of Fortune 500 business executives on a leadership retreat.

Perhaps that is because the material presented was a form of executive training, tailored to the unique circumstances that a NHL official faces in executing his duties.

Theories espoused by such luminaries as psychologist Viktor Frankl, authors Dr. Stephen R. Covey and his son, Stephen M.R. Covey and famed businessman Warren Buffett were tossed around liberally in the presentations, which focused mainly on effective leadership principles.

Frankl’s contribution to the discussion centered on the concept of choice. Frankl believed that between any stimulus and response there is a choice. And, that must be the case for the officials.

Throughout a game, they are bombarded with stimuli. Yet, the officials must process each individual stimulus, often on a split-second basis, and make the proper choice time and again.

It is a daunting task to say the least, but one that the refs are willing to tackle because they believe they are the best-trained officials in professional sports. And, that belief allows each of the officials to have faith in the three other officials he is assigned for a particular game.

One major objective of NHL Officials Training Camp is for the officials to continue building an established bond of trust between one another.
Such trust is not easy to come by, but is a powerful weapon once forged. That is where the Coveys enter into the equation – especially Stephen M.R. Covey, who has recently written a book -- The Speed of Trust -- on the phenomenon of trust.

One of Covey’s principle theories is that an established bond of trust between people allows decisions to be made in a more rapid fashion because of the faith each individual has in the others in the group in question.

Speed and accuracy in the decision-making process are tantamount to any official’s success. In the end, the official’s ability to deliver on those two aspects will make or break a career.

So, the officials listened raptly Monday as they were lectured on accountability and building trust. They were coached on how to control their body language in order to project the right image and given a 13-point scheme to earn and build trust among themselves.

They also attacked role-playing exercises designed to illustrate the role trust can play in defusing potentially ugly situations. Breaking into six-person groups, they acted out different scenarios, including being confronted by team officials away from the rink and being verbally abused by players from the bench.

There were a lot of laughs -- and quite a bit of salty language -- as these scenarios were acted out. But there was also a good deal of learning. After each of the four scenarios were played out, the results were discussed – first in the small-group setting and then among the larger group as a whole.

It was quite clear that the role-playing exercises were more than just an opportunity for the officials to be on the other side of the fence -- doing their best impersonations of players and coaches -- for a few brief, but enjoyable moments.

For Fraser, the role playing -- and the underlying messages -- is important to get out before the season starts. He says he has experienced, at some point in his career, most of the scenarios laid out Monday.

“A lot of them are true-life situations,” he says. “I remember once having a late lunch in Montreal when the Leafs were playing there on a Saturday night. I was the only guy in the restaurant at the Marriott and Pat Quinn (the Toronto coach) came in and the maitre d’ put him at the table right beside me. Pat was a little miffed that the guy, with the whole restaurant open, would put him beside the guy that was going to be the referee that night.

“There was a little bit of tension. But, I got up, I extended my hand, said; ‘How are you doing, Pat.’ I engaged him in conversation and the ice broke and melted and we talked about family. It brought things down and there was no need for confrontation and no need for tension. That was quickly eliminated through communication and dialogue.”

Fortunately, the NHL officials learned all about positive communication and dialogue Monday afternoon in one of many steps that will get them prepared for the start of the 2007-08 NHL season.

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