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Teamwork wins out above all for NHL officials

by Shawn P. Roarke /

Veteran NHL Referee Don Koharski is seated at the right in the boat that would eventually sink, banging the drum as the boats leave the dock at the NHL Officials Training Camp.
COLLINGWOOD, Ontario -- The sight of 18 NHL officials clinging to a sinking boat in the middle of Georgian Bay was not on the agenda of Tuesday’s team-building exercise at the NHL Officials Training Camp, but it served a teaching purpose nonetheless.

The officials were taking part in dragon boat races on Georgian Bay, an exercise designed to reinforce the basic tenets of communication and leadership in the face of an uncertain situation. Dragon boats, by the way, are basically long canoes that seat 20 people. The 20 rowers must paddle in unison to make the boat move efficiently.

So, the idea of having the officials split into four teams and race each other in the unfamiliar dragon boats seemed like a perfect idea as a team-building exercise. And, it was, until the yellow team’s boat took on water and rapidly sank after the first race.

The boat foundered, almost without warning, and sent the 18 officials splashing into the cold water of Georgian Bay.

“The water was very cold,” said Pierre Racicot, one of the linesmen on Team Yellow. “I live in Florida now and I’m not used to cold like that. It was a unique experience, that’s for sure.”

The officials were all wearing the mandatory life jackets and the boat was only a few inches under the water, serving as an impromptu flotation device; so the officials were never in true danger. In fact, it was only their pride that took a beating as the remaining 50-plus officials from the other three boats took every opportunity to razz their peers as they bobbed helplessly in the bay.
“They were three deep on the dock giving it to us,” said Don Koharski, another referee on Team Yellow.

So, what exactly happened? The boat showed no signs of difficulty in the pre-race training session. And it gave a representative effort in the first of what were supposed to be three races.

But make no mistake, these games were serious business.

“We had all our big guys on one side,” said Koharski, who was perched at the front of the boat, banging on the drum used to keep the rhythm of the rowers. From his perch, he was in a perfect position to watch the calamity unfold.

“It was rough water out there and we were taking on a lot of water. We didn’t have a bailer on the boat. I was up top there and when the water started coming in, I said; ‘Boys, this (boat) is going down.’”

And, down it did go – without much warning or time to react.

While there was plenty of blame to go around, Team Yellow member Steve Miller pointed the finger squarely at Koharski, the boat’s drummer.

“He’s the leader of the team, and the coach of our hockey team (in the training-camp tournament), so he made the boat go down for sure,” said Miller, tongue planted firmly in cheek. “The drumming wasn’t very good.”

Yes, the event was good for a few laughs and several stinging one-liners once it was determined that everyone was safe and in no danger. But, believe it or not, it also served an educational purpose, according to the team-building organizers from kesa, an Albertan-based organization-building firm.

“We’re disappointed that this happened -- it wasn’t planned, that’s for sure. But, from a learning standpoint, it is almost better that it happened,” said Dave Hoy, one of the founders of kesa. “Adversity creates an opportunity to show true character and we saw that today.”

Hoy said that it is important to note that the officials on the sinking boat never panicked and followed instructions to the letter. They communicated throughout the ordeal and never exhibited the slightest hint of panic, a response that would have been expected from most people put into that same situation. 

“Adversity occurred and no panic ensued,” Hoy said, clearly impressed. “The team remained calm under pressure. For me, it reinforces the fact that these officials have been there a number of times before on the ice and have faced adversity in game situations.

NHL Director of Officials Stephen Walkom, at left in track suit, shares a laugh with some very wet officials from Team Yellow.

“The other thing that I would comment on is that they stayed together as a team and had some fun with the whole thing. That tells you something about their ability to respond under pressure and handle adversity.”

Miller, a referee, agreed with that assessment; once he took a long, and very hot, shower, to boil the chill out of his bones.

“That’s the true meaning of going down with the team,” Miller laughed. “But, seriously, we all stuck together as a team. We were supposed to stay with the boat and we did. We survived it as a team.”

That is important, because under the stewardship of NHL Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom, the officials have been indoctrinated into the concept of team defining all that they do. The officials’ group, as a whole, is a big team and the four-man units that govern each NHL game are also treated as teams.

This team concept is something that the referees have embraced and used to help them deal with the rigors and pressures of their profession. According to Miller, the belief in team showed throughout the response to Tuesday afternoon’s mishap.

“We go out every night as a group of four and work as a team,” Miller said. “We have to adapt to different situations every night on the ice and today was another situation we had to adapt to. I think that being an official on the ice as part of a group of four, we adapt to different situations that a regular person in a regular job might not be able to do when it is thrown in your face so fast.

“All the things we do here at training camp, it all helps us out on the ice.”

And even during an unexpected dip into Georgian Bay.

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