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NHL Stadium Series

Stadium Series brings NHL referee home to hockey roots at Air Force

Chmielewski excited to work Avalanche-Kings outdoor game at Falcon Stadium

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

Tom Chmielewski does not have much seniority. The 32-year-old is in his seventh season as an NHL referee, his third full time. He said he's in no position to ask for assignments, especially one as plum as an outdoor game.

But when he heard the NHL would play at the U.S. Air Force Academy -- where his father attended and taught, where he started playing and officiating, where he and his father started officiating together -- he couldn't help it.

"I was dropping a few seeds and making it known to the higher-ups that I had a pretty good connection," he said.

It worked.

NHL director of officiating Stephen Walkom assigned Chmielewski to referee the 2020 Navy Federal Credit Union NHL Stadium Series between the Colorado Avalanche and Los Angeles Kings at Falcon Stadium on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, SN360, TVAS2).

"We're really grateful to Mr. Walkom for doing this," said Chmielewski's father, Bob.

But it gets better.

Not only will Bob be in the stands with other family members and friends Saturday, he will work as a linesman on the same ice when local high schools Pine Creek and Lewis-Palmer play at Falcon Stadium on Tuesday.

"As happy as I am for this, I'm tenfold more happy for my father," Tom said. "I mean, he's been so supportive through my career, and I know this will be a pretty, pretty special few days for him. So I'm really excited."

Bob graduated from the academy at Falcon Stadium in 1978. He served on the operations research faculty at the academy from 1981-84 and 1991-95 during a 17-year Air Force career.

Tom was born at Scott Air Force Base in southern Illinois, near St. Louis. He was 4 when the family moved to the Colorado Springs area in 1991.

At 5, Tom started playing youth hockey at Cadet Ice Arena. He played four years there before joining a competitive team in Colorado Springs.

He would attend graduation ceremonies at Falcon Stadium, running out on the field with other kids to grab a souvenir after the cadets tossed their hats into the air.

His best friend was Tony Lucia, the son of Colorado College hockey coach Don Lucia. One Halloween, Tom went dressed as an Air Force puck, Tony as a Colorado College puck. Through the Lucias, the Chmielewskis got to know the family of Air Force hockey coach Frank Serratore.

At 12, Tom went to his first officiating clinic at Cadet Ice Arena.

"It was just another way to stay on the ice and earn a few extra dollars on the side," Tom said.

Bob went too.

"I figured if I was going to have to take him to his games, I might as well skate as well," Bob said.

Tom played hockey, baseball and soccer for Liberty High School, six miles from the academy. The hockey team practiced at Cadet Ice Arena and raised money by collecting seat backs after Air Force football games at Falcon Stadium.

Meanwhile, Tom officiated youth hockey, often with Bob.

"We got to officiate quite a bit together, and that was always special for me," Bob said.

Tom thought about attending the academy. He spent a year and a half in Junior ROTC learning the values and history of the Air Force as well as military drills. He played in Air Force summer hockey camps and showcases.

But after attempting to play junior hockey, he went to Colorado State in Fort Collins. As a senior during the 2008-09 season, he worked part time as a linesman in multiple leagues, including Atlantic Hockey, Air Force's conference. He worked Air Force games at Cadet Ice Arena with his father, an Air Force season-ticket holder, in the stands.

After refereeing in the United States Hockey League in 2009-10, Tom worked on the grounds crew at the Eisenhower Golf Course at the academy, mowing lawns and manicuring bunkers.

Bob kept officiating on his own, including Air Force men's club hockey games.

When Tom worked his way up to the NHL, making his debut April 8, 2014, it was bittersweet.

"It was kind of sad for me when he got to the NHL, because I said, 'Shoot, we'll never get to ref together again,' " Bob said.

But the Air Force connection continued. When Tom got married in 2016, the Serratores were guests. Tom's mother, Jean, is good friends with Frank's wife, Carol. Father and son still try to work a game together each summer in a Colorado Springs league.

And now this. While Tom referees in the Stadium Series on Saturday and Bob lines the high school game Tuesday, another Chmielewski will take the ice at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Tom and his wife, Brooke, have a son, Ford, who is almost 2. 

"We actually just got a pair of skates delivered," Tom said. "I got the smallest ones I could find. We're going to bring him out there and see. I figured, 'You know what? He's not ready to skate, but what better opportunity?' We can tell him his first time ever on skates was at Falcon Stadium."

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