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Officials play role reversal at training camp

by Shawn P. Roarke

The 75 NHL officials taking part in the training camp were split into four teams for a round-robin tournament, with players pulled from
each team to officiate and coach for a period during the competition.
THORNBURY, Ontario -- At least for part of the day Tuesday, the skate was on the other foot for the NHL officials at their training camp at the Beaver Valley Community Center. The officials spent part of the morning playing hockey as their peers worked on their refereeing skills in live-fire game situations.

“That’s the toughest game you will ref all year,” said DanO’Rourke, one of the referees. “Guys just want to get their time done as the ref and go back to playing because the boys are all over you about everything.”

There’s good reason for that, says veteran referee Mick McGeough, who will retire at season’s end and is enjoying his final training camp. And, it’s not just because these boys like giving each other a little razzing now and then.

“We wanted to keep it as close to game situations as possible,” McGeough said. “We called hooking and holding like a real game so our guys can get some practice, too.”

But make no mistake, these games were serious business.

“We have a lot of fun, but the underlying factor is all these guys are competitive,” McGeough said. “We like to play hard and play for a little pride. The two winning teams get to play each other and the winner gets to brag for a year.”

The 75 officials were split into four teams for a round-robin tournament. Players are pulled from each team to officiate and coach for a period during the competition. Goalies were out-sourced from the local leagues in the area.

While the officials played hard, the result wasn’t always pretty.

In the first game of the morning -- between Team Red and Team Blue -- scoring chances were few and far between as the officials tried to beat the local goalies. The game ended in a 1-1 tie and nobody could score during overtime.

The ensuing shootout easily approached the number of shooters the epic shootout contested by the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals that went 15 rounds back in November of 2005.

Linesman Derek Amell finally ended the contest with a pretty breakaway goal after countless flubbed and errant shots populated the earlier goings-on.

“You got to remember, that’s why we are referees,” McGeough laughed, before lamenting his own missed shootout opportunity. “None of us have any hands any more.”

Actually, quite a few of the officials do have scoring hands. Many played competitive hockey as players through college or the completion of their Canadian junior careers. Some still play in men’s leagues during the summer and the skill was evident.

In fact, in the late game, there were nine goals scored as Team Green dispatched Team Yellow, 6-3. A number of pretty goals were scored in that game.

For Bill McCreary, another veteran official, the hockey games are about a return to his roots in the game. He believes it serves the same purpose for many of his peers.

“You know what it does is it brings back, probably, some of our heritage,” McCreary said after suiting up for the victorious Team Yellow. “We have a lot of fun out there and there is a lot of respect among the guys. It’s the grass roots of hockey and it’s probably what we all did to start in the game before we got involved in officiating. It shows our passion for the game as a group.”

NHL Officials watch the on-ice action at the 2007 NHL Officials Training Camp at the Beaver Valley Community Center.
McCreary is a classic example. He played hockey through the completion of his junior eligibility, playing for the St. Catharines Black Hawks of the Ontario Hockey League. But those playing days are long in the past for McCreary, one of the most accomplished NHL referees in the history of the game.

“That was 35 years ago,” he says, with a chuckle. “Your skills decline. I’m not a goal player now; I just try to help my line out.”

Tuesday was about more than reliving past glories, celebrating goals and bemoaning missed opportunities, though. There was work to be done, as there is every day of this camp.

The early morning was occupied by a presentation from NHL Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell, who talked about a number of issues. Later, the officials split into groups and walked through an hour-long presentation of the new rules and points of emphasis by their boss, Stephen Walkom.

It was a good deal of necessary classroom and video work as the officials continue their intense preparation for the upcoming NHL season. Accordingly, the officials were all ears and eyes as the presentations unfolded.

There also was a working lunch were the officials welcomed and entertained a group of youngsters from the Beaver Valley Minor Hockey Association. Clearly, this was an attempt to recruit future members into the officiating fraternity.

“Don’t be afraid to officiate,” Walkom said in welcoming the group. “It’s a lot of fun. Play as long as you can, but give officiating a try, too. I think you will like it.”

But the chatter, especially during precious free time, remained focused on the exploits from the morning hockey games.

“That’s one of the highlights of the camp,” O’Rourke said. “We’re out there picking on each other, laughing at each other and just having a blast.”

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