Friendship backstories often come with an unexpected twist. Let's whistle hockey referees Bob Seller and Ben Savage for two minutes to explain.
"Ben and I have been working together for 10 years," said Sellers during a break between games at the late January Great Puckaroo Roundup played on Winthrop's feel-like-a-kid-again outdoor rink. "I think we have done 620 games together."
But's who counting? The two friends' twist of coming together as buddies and officiating partners is all about Savage's aggressive ways as a player.
"You want the truth?" asked Savage, standing side-by-side with Sellers. "I was a hockey player who lived in the penalty box."
"Oh my gosh," said Sellers. "It got to the point where if I saw Ben's team on the ice, I knew we would get Ben in the [penalty] box two or three times during the game. A couple times he got pretty verbal with us and we had to kick him out."
Both men smiled at the memory. But something transformed along with those two-minute penalty calls for slashing, hooking, tripping, you name it. Sellers worked to inform Savage why he was getting whistled during Greater Seattle Hockey League games. Savage learned what was acceptable physicality and what crossed the line in adult-league play.
"Ben is a character," said Sellers, still smiling. "We used to have our battles. I enjoyed it in a way, not that I wanted to put him in the box. Once he understood what I was going to put up with, it was kind of cool. We built from there."
Another unexpected twist, especially for Sellers: "One day, I showed up and Ben's in the dressing room getting ready to ref with me," he said. "My mouth dropped open, I thought, no way, not this guy. Ben had already reffed a couple games and we starting working together. One reason is we worked the same nights."
"I figured I would join the stripes side," said Savage, who still plays once a week too. "I was lucky enough to get partnered with Bob. We've been a pair ever since."
It is a pair much appreciated among the players at the Great Puckaroo tournament, who know the two officials from GSHL competition. In Winthrop, there was lots of banter from players to refs, all in fun and respect. There were few arguments or questioning of calls with Sellers and Savage on the ice. One litmus test: Seasoned players who drew penalties headed to the box without any nonverbal cues of dissent.
For his part, Sellers played hockey as a kid, starting when his dad took him to a youth hockey practice at four-and-a-half years old. His father asked if Sellers might be interested in playing the sport. The answer was yes, even if Sellers "cried my first half-hour on the ice." A referee that officiated Sellers' youth hockey games was constantly trying to get Sellers to joined the striped shirts, clearly seeing potential. Sellers eventually became a USA Hockey certified referee in his late 20s but didn't really catch the bug until his late 30s. "I realized it was fun to see both sides of the sport," he explained.
The partners attribute their success and longevity to communicating directly with players on the ice early in games.
"We want to set the pace, set the tone," said Savage. "We might have quick, hard whistle [to indicate the level of puck battling allowed without whistles]."
A bit of levity helps too. During a Puckaroo game, two opponents were inching too close to each other before a faceoff.
"Back off for me, guys," said Savage, waiting to drop the puck. "I like you, but not that much."
"It comes back to communicating with the players so they know what we are seeing and calling [or not calling]," said Sellers. "You want to let them play the game. Keep the game flowing."
Sellers and Savage don't see each other away from the rinks, though their families are friendly and get together once in a while. Their friendship is evident from knowing each other's coffee habits to traveling together for road-trip tournaments such as Great Puckaroo (check out our "Newlyrefs" video to see just how well Sellers and Savage know each other). The buddy system clicks for players on ice too.
"What works for us is we agree the main thing is to make sure players are having fun," said Sellers. "They see our camaraderie and adapt to it."