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NHL officials put on a clinic of their own

by Brian Compton

ROBERVAL, Quebec – The officiating crew for Tuesday night’s Kraft Hockeyville game between the Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres arrived at Benoit Levesque Arena on Monday afternoon and went straight to work.

No, they weren’t going over lineups. Instead, the group consisting of referees Marc Joannette and Justin St. Pierre and linesmen Michel Cormier and Pierre Champoux held a clinic for local referees that featured both a classroom and on-ice session.

The on-ice session was first, as roughly 30 people gathered in a room upstairs at the rink to watch video and ask questions about how they can improve their skills. They also asked how NHL officials manage their personal lives, given the amount of time that is spent away from home.

“We’re on the road 20 days a month, average, and sometimes more than that,” Joannette said. “I thought that was a nice thought to think about our wives, who have to grind it out all year and take care of the kids and those situations.”

Other than St. Pierre – who is from the area – Hockeyville marks their first-ever trip to Roberval. After getting a glance at Benoit Levesque Arena, they quickly came to the conclusion that Tuesday night’s game will bring back memories of their days as junior and minor-league officials.

“For me, it’s a nice reminder of the small rinks – the crowds and everything like that. It’s cool,” Cormier said. “I know they’re trying to give a lot of tickets to the kids, so it’s going to be fun.”

Champoux, a Montreal native who turned 45 in April, was blown away by the passion the aspiring officials showed. Come Tuesday night, the veteran linesman knows he’s in for a real treat.

“It’s surprising to see the amount of people here who love hockey,” Champoux said. “They’re dying for it, so it’s probably one of the greatest things to ever happen to this city. It’s too bad it’s not a big rink. It would have been great to get everybody in this building, but that’s a fact we have to live with.”

After a classroom session that lasted close to two hours, everyone hit the ice for some drills. Whether it was how to properly run a face-off or learning how to get into proper position behind the net, the students felt fortunate they were able to learn from the pros.

“With NHL referees, it’s just a chance to go over the basics that we never get to see or learn,” said Billy Martin, who lives in Chicoutimi. “In minor hockey, we have limited resources. At the level of supervision, we’re missing that basic instruction. It’s special.”

Joannette – who worked the 2008 Stanley Cup Final between the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins – was highly impressed not only with the skill, but the enthusiasm and the desire to improve that was displayed on Monday.

“Those guys were amazing,” Joannette gushed. “They were very receptive, and we understand what they’re saying because we’ve been there before. We know how huge it was for us to see NHL referees come in our class and speak about their career and how they got there. We had a really good group today. It was a lot of fun.”

The fun continues on Tuesday night, when NHL hockey officially arrives in Roberval. By winning the Hockeyville competition, Kraft handed the city a check for $100,000 to put toward arena upgrades. Roberval officials topped that by putting another $200,000 toward improvements, which St. Pierre noticed as soon as he arrived on the scene.

“I came here last year just to skate during the summer, and it was like nothing changed,” St. Pierre said. “When they won the contest, they made everything great. They changed the boards and the glass. I remember the shower was bad. They’ve made lots of changes, and it’s great for the city of Roberval.”

"When they won the contest, they made everything great. They changed the boards and the glass. I remember the shower was bad. They’ve made lots of changes, and it’s great for the city of Roberval."
-- NHL referee, Justin St. Pierre

At the end of class, the officials handed out personalized hockey cards and gave out prizes via drawings. Bernard Gendron, who also hails from Chicoutimi, won an NHL referee jersey that was signed by all League officials.

“We learned a lot about skating,” said Gendron, a pilot who also used to sell hockey sticks during the winter. “We have 30 referees in Chicoutimi, and we’re going to be able to benefit from these referees that we worked with today. We got an experience that the others didn’t get, so we’re going to share what we learned.”

When the session concluded, Joannette gushed about the city of Roberval. Once he arrived, it didn’t take long for him to realize why this place is now Hockeyville.

“This region is great,” said Joannette, who refereed his first NHL game in 1999. “The people are warm and it’s a lot of fun. They deserve to get this. They’re hungry for hockey and they’re passionate for the game. They’re really excited for the game tomorrow night.”

It won’t be until the puck drops, though, that the 1,200 in attendance probably realize the talent that will be skating on their ice.

“We feel like kids again, but it’s going to be the big boys out there,” Joannette said. “It’s a small building, and you can feel the energy in the city already. It’s a great thing the National Hockey League and Kraft have put together for these people and these small cities.”

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