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Hockey Weekend Across America helps local teenagers meet NHL officials

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

As part of USA Hockey’s nationwide initiative called Hockey Weekend Across America, two local aspiring referees got the chance of a lifetime to meet with and talk to NHL officials Sunday evening at the American Airlines Center.

Travis Hall, 17, from Keller and Jacie Acker, 15, from Euless, each members of the USA Hockey youth officials program, were selected to participate, and had a very enlightening time talking with NHL linesmen Mark Wheler and Thor Nelson, along with referees Justin St. Pierre and Eric Furlatt, before the Stars’ contest against Nashville.

“It’s great, I get to meet some guys who have been in the business a long time and are very successful at it,” said Hall, who attends Keller High School, of the experience. “(I got to ask) how they got to where they are now, if they ever played, how they managed playing and reffing at a high level at the same time, questions like that.”

“I wanted to ask them just how they got this far, the steps that they took and how they deal with getting on the good side of coaches and players and stuff, just how they did it,” added Acker, who attends Colleyville Heritage High School. “It’s impressive. I’d like to go pretty far, I’d love to be the first girl to work in the NHL, that would be awesome. I hope so.”

Just as most young players dream of one day playing in the NHL, the USA Hockey program put an emphasis on officials who want to continue up the ranks towards the NHL, too, so this meeting was more like a local player meeting Stars captain Brenden Morrow.

“Officiating is an important part of the game overall and we need good officials,” said Dave Fischer, USA Hockey’s Senior Director of Communications and one of the architects of the program. “I’m glad we got this going. I’m sure it had to be exciting for those kids to interact with the NHL officials and to pick their brains and see how they got to where they are. These are the heroes of these kids. As players, they aspire to be NHL players, and as officials, you aspire to work in the National Hockey League and they got to meet their heroes.”

Many people who don’t have kids playing youth hockey may not realize that most games are officiated by older kids, so when mites (eight years old and under) and squirts (U10) face off at one of the local Dr Pepper StarCenters, most of the referees are teenagers like Hall and Acker.

And yes, they have each dealt with their share of irate parents yelling at them from the stands, but displaying impressive maturity for that age, they have already learned how to ignore it and not let it bother them.

“There’s always the emotional squirt parents and mite parents, but you just have to tune them out because they’re just worried about their kids,” said Hall, who also plays himself in the Midget major age bracket. “I don’t take it personally, I get it. I played at that age at one time and I had my mom and dad in the stands, so I get it.”

“Yeah, (Saturday) I ran into a very crazy squirt mother,” Acker said. “It was pretty funny, actually, this lady told me that I should work at IHOP. The thing is, I’m not old enough to work at IHOP. But I don’t take it personally or anything.”

And for Acker, as a girl refereeing youth boys’ games, she reports that she hasn’t yet heard any sexist comments about her ability to officiate.

“No, not really, most people respect me,” she said. “I think they realize it’s just sort of a learning experience, so they try to encourage me and things. That’s it.”

Upon talking with the NHL officials about the possibility of her someday becoming the first female to reach the highest levels of the sport, linesman Thor Nelson noted that she would have to overcome a lot of negativity along the way.

“There’s no reason that one can’t,” the veteran linesman from North Dakota said. “It’s just that it’s going to have to be someone who doesn’t let it bother them, because the first one, it’s going to be a pretty big spotlight on them.”

Nelson also pointed out that, after working some top-level women’s hockey at the Women’s World Championships, they were always looking for good female officials to work those elite-level games because the female players wanted women officials.

But regardless of gender, USA Hockey is always looking for young new officials to join their training program, if only to keep pace with the increasing participation of kids playing hockey. Kids can start the process of learning how to officiate as young as 12, and there are plenty of opportunities out there for good, young referees and linesmen.

“Our focus is certainly to expand the base of players in our country, especially to attract more 4-8 year-old players, but as we expand the number of players, we need to make sure we’re paying attention to the officiating side as well,” Fischer noted, “because the more games, the more officials that are needed and some parts of the country already have a shortage of officials. So this will be one more way to gain some visibility for officiating and to get those young kids a chance to be exposed to their heroes.”

For Hall, who still plays hockey in addition to his officiating duties, one of the attractions to getting involved in that aspect of the game was to get more ice time and hang around the rink more.

“Just from playing, being around ice and being around hockey, I enjoy it, so being a ref, I get to be in the rink a little more, so it’s a job I wouldn’t mind doing,” Hall said.

He also notes that wearing the striped jersey has helped give him a bit of a different perspective when he then changes roles and puts on his player’s gear.

“I don’t think I alter how I play, but I do sometimes, when there’s a certain call made, I used to judge the ref,” acknowledged Hall. “But now I understand the situation, what they see, how they have to view it compared to the other players.”

As for how Hall and Acker were selected among the large pool of youth referees in the Metroplex, Fischer noted that process was delegated.

“We have a broad mechanism throughout USA Hockey across the country and it was done at the District level, through our District Referees in Chief and their staffs,” Fischer said. “There wasn’t any hard criteria. Essentially, it was young, aspiring officials typically between 14 and 18. It was kids in those areas that people in those official education programs felt that those were aspiring officials that some day would like to work at the highest level.”

Based on the response from both sides here in Dallas, it appears that the USA Hockey initiative was a major success.

“We wanted to actually get if off the ground a year earlier, but it just didn’t work out,” Fischer said of including an officiating component with the Hockey Weekend Across America celebration. “We worked on it the following year and worked on it with the NHL Officials Association and their president Brian Murphy and I got the buy-in from the NHL officials and worked with the NHL clubs that were home over the weekend, got the buy-in from them, also worked on a similar program throughout the United States Hockey League, our only Tier I junior league. We’ve had multiple e-mails back from other officials and other NHL venues and the reviews were all positive.”

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