Sports Getting Hockey Referees Ready for the Big Leagues
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BUFFALO — When Jessica Leclerc skated into the corner of the rink, she was already a blur. Up went an arm as she stopped, whistling a penalty. A decisive chop of hand on sleeve signaled a slash.
This is what hockey justice looks like — or would, if this were an actual game. It was just a drill. No actual hockey players had strayed or been punished, and Leclerc made for the blueline to do it all again.
Welcome to the National Hockey League’s officials combine, an annual late-summer festival of phantom calls and practice puck drops. Over four days in mid-August, 86 aspiring game officials from across North America convened at Harborcenter, the two-rink training facility next door to the Buffalo Sabres’ home arena.
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Every spring, on the same ice, the N.H.L. puts the best draft-eligible players through their paces. This is a showcase like that one, but with fewer fans, not so much news media and many more striped sweaters. Instead of showing extravagant goals by, say, Sidney Crosby, televisions on the concourses ran highlight reels of mic’d-up referees.
Part training camp, part clinic, the combine is a job fair for some. Since 2014, the N.H.L. has hired 27 officials who auditioned at the event. Others are in an exploratory phase, first-timers with a whistle, just trying to figure out whether the officiating life is for them.
“Not everybody gets to the N.H.L.,” said Al Kimmel, the league’s director of scouting and development for officiating. “It’s similar to the players: 2 or 3 percent, just the very elite.”
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For more than a century, N.H.L. officials have been policing the game and faithfully upholding the rule book. Nobody remembers that.
It’s the errors that fix in the minds of players, coaches and fans — the penalties that weren’t called, the goals that maybe shouldn’t have counted.
“It’s a hell of a job,” the third president of the N.H.L., Clarence Campbell,, ruminating on the referees’ lot. “A man has to have iron in his soul, the will to command.”
Hockey today is faster on the ice and an altogether bigger business. One thing has remained constant for the 44 referees and 38 linesmen employed by the N.H.L.: the culture of high-definition scrutiny that they inhabit.
For all the drama attending thein June, the playoffs were also skewed by several officiating miscues. Notable among those: that led to an overtime goal in the Western Conference finals between the Sharks and the Blues. That should have stopped play, but none of the four officials saw it. Under the rules then in place, the play was not reviewable.
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The goal, and the outrage, stood.
Asked for his view after Meier’s handling, N.H.L. Commissioner Gary Bettman said, “What I thought was, it would be good if I kept my head from exploding.”
Soon after the season’s end, the league’s Board of Governors approved a raft of new rules, expanding video review.
“Officials make mistakes,” said Stephen Walkom, the league’s director of officiating, “and they’re always held accountable in that regard.”
If the speed of the game makes it more exciting to watch, it also heightens the challenges for those trying to keep tabs of hurtling pucks and bodies. The advent of video review has aided officials; it can also raise stakes and pressures.
“At one time, people would think, ‘Oh, the referee was great because he got 80 percent of the calls right,’” said Walkom, who refereed more than 600 N.H.L. games. “Now, if he gets 99 percent of them right, but gets one wrong, it’s a big issue.”
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He added: “When you sit in my chair, you always hear that officiating needs to improve. So you think, ‘O.K., how?’”
Introducing the combine was part of the answer. Going back to Campbell’s time and beyond, the N.H.L.’s method for keeping the league supplied with officials was never particularly systematic.
“The resources and the focus on officiating was kind of limited,” Kimmel said. “We run it just like a team now. Bring in new draft picks every year and watch them develop and push the group in front of them to make everybody better.”
And in this day and age, Walkom said, “whether you’re a linesman or a referee, you need to be an athlete.”
At the combine, the participants divided their waking hours between the ice and the nearby gym. There they dashed and pedaled and planked under the eyes of high-performance fitness instructors and staff members from Walkom’s N.H.L. officiating office.
They also clattered, skates on, into classrooms to face off with laptops that took them through visual drills appraising depth perception and information processing. In another room, they focused on interactive screens streaming an app, uCall, designed to test how fast they reacted to plays unfurling in real time.
Throughout the weekend, attendees picked up sticks to play in a tournament of scrimmages in which they took turns officiating under the guidance of combine graduates now working in the N.H.L. The hockey was fast, skillful and mostly whistle-free. The clamor from the benches wasn’t all for goals that went in: On this ice, with this crowd, an iffy offside was just as likely to bring down the house.
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Leclerc, 34, from Saco, Maine, came to the combine having officiated hockey since she was 13. When she’s not on the ice, she works as an administrator at an assisted-living facility; when she is, she has supervised youth and tier-one junior hockey and served as a lineswoman at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
Women are still waiting for their chance to work an N.H.L. whistle. Eleven women attended this year’s combine, four of whom went on to work preseason rookie tournaments. Without committing to a timeline, Walkom said that it was a matter of when women took the next step, not if.
Leclerc was not sure she would be a part of that, but “hopefully,” she said, “by being here this weekend, it really shows that women can compete and that gender really has no role in officiating.”
Corey Syvret, a 2007 Florida Panthers draft pick who played eight seasons as a minor league defenseman, attended the combine in 2017 and adapted quickly enough to officiating to be hired by the N.H.L. that year. Now 30 and a mentor at the combine, he has worked two full American Hockey League seasons along with more than 30 regular-season N.H.L. games.
The intensity is what he values in his new calling, being “captured” by the game he’s in.
“As a hockey player, you’re kind of reckless out there,” he said. “You’re trying to see what you can get away with.”
For those wondering whether a life in hockey law enforcement might be for them, Walkom said, “You better love it.”
Smiling, he noted that the only time a referee is perfect is during the anthem, before the puck drops.
“The best golfer in the world is the one that recovers the quickest from the bad shot,” he added. “In hockey, you make mistakes, and you recover quickly. You need that mind-set as a ref.”
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Whether you have always wondered what it takes to become an official or you have been watching the playoffs and want to learn more about the rules of ice ...
Hockey Players Vs Refs
No NHL clips Ill do a separate video for that but enjoy this one!