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Another Side to the Game

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins
Most youth hockey players dream of someday making it to the NHL. That’s a given.

But as they get older, they realize just how difficult is really is to make it as a pro. They continue to play the game because they love it, but many will abandon those childhood aspirations of playing in the NHL as they move along in their careers.

Walkom drops the puck between centers Sidney Crosby and Mike Richards. (Credit: Getty Images)
But they don’t have to completely discard their dreams of being involved in hockey at a high level. There is another option that allows people to share the ice with the best hockey players in the world – refereeing.

“It’s the next best thing to playing,” said veteran referee Stephen Walkom, who joined the NHL officiating crew in 1990 and has worked a number of Stanley Cup Finals, along with the 2002 Olympics and the 2011 Winter Classic.

“You’re still in the game. You don’t win or lose, but you get to skate and you get to see hockey at ice level.”

Walkom, who lives in Moon Township, will speak at USA Hockey’s Officiating Seminar at CONSOL Energy Center on Aug. 21 in hopes of getting more local amateur players involved in refereeing to better the game. He’ll be joined by NHL linesman Derek Amoll, who resides in Cranberry Township, among others.

The goal of the clinic, which will also serve as USA Hockey’s Referee Certification Class for Levels 1, 2, 3 and 4, is to get those who are already playing the sport to try their hand at officiating at a young age and go from there.

“We’re trying to get the kids to start it early,” Walkom said. “As a hockey player, you’re at the rink anyway. If you have a bantam game you’re playing in at 3 o’clock, you could go out and do a couple of mite games in the morning. It’ll really help the game.”

“It’s to try to get kids in Western Pennsylvania to come out and see another side of the game. Just get them to try it and see if they like it. ... But who knows, maybe it’s something that you really love to do. And long-term, there’s always lots of opportunities because they’re always looking for good people in the NHL.”

Stephen Walkom (Credit: Getty Images)
Walkom has seen it all, at all levels of the game. In addition to being one of hockey’s finest referees on the ice, he spent four years as the NHL’s Director of Officiating following the 2004-05 lockout – meaning he was the one who spearheaded the implementation of the new rule changes meant to open up the game.

He’s also involved in the local amateur hockey scene, helping coach his children’s youth teams in the Pittsburgh area.

So what is it that he’s gathered from his immersal in the game?

That officiating can always improve, especially at the amateur levels. To do that, it needs people who already possess the experience and the hockey sense to keep up with the ever-changing game as it grows faster and the players get better.

“Hockey officiating will only improve if the raw material is good,” Walkom said. “You don’t get gold from quartz. … I always say this to coaches – the biggest resource for improving officiating in hockey is sitting in front of you on the bench. So I think with the Pittsburgh Penguins hosting this sort of thing, we’re hoping to attract kids that are old enough to be able to go out and skate.

“The fact that a professional hockey team is concerned about making sure there’s a great resource of people coming in to officiate is the only way officiating is going to get better long term.”

No matter what level a person referees at, the amount of satisfaction garnered from a job well done is something that Walkom cherishes, and hopes others will too after attending the seminar.

“It’s a true challenge to officiate a hockey game, both mentally and physically,” he said. “These kids will do a lot in life, but there’s very few things that you will do that give you that sort of challenge and that sort of satisfaction when you’re done doing a good job.

“I always say, play hockey as long as you can. That’s why we’re in the game. Never lose touch of why you’re in the game. … These kids need to know that just because they don’t play anymore when they reach 18, 19, or 20, doesn’t mean that they can’t participate in the game into their 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s by officiating. The game needs it.”

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