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It's Official: Olympics not just lifelong dream for athletes

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Paul Hoogkamp
2/27/2014 2:49:13 PM
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Now that another Olympic Games is over, many across Canada know the stories of our athletes and the various roads they took to get to their ultimate goal.

But what about the officials? Every sport has officials and they also have stories about hard work and sacrifice but their accomplishments are seldom recognized by anyone outside their inner circle.

Well, meet Derek Amell, 17-year NHL linesman and now an Olympian.

When I turned on the men's hockey gold medal game between Canada and Sweden, I was happy to see that an old acquaintance would be working the lines for the biggest game on the world's biggest stage.

You see, over 25 years ago, Derek and I worked together at a drug store chain in Whitby, Ontario. I was a university student taking a year off school and he was a high school student looking to improve on his first job working the night shift at Burger King for $2.85/hr.

There were two things I remembered about Derek back then: he was a lot bigger than me, and he had a very calm personality. Looking back, those are two good attributes for an NHL linesman.

For Derek, the dream took off at the age of 24 when he worked his first Ontario Hockey League game. Three years later, he started working American Hockey League games and this is where our paths would cross again. I was an off-ice official with the Hamilton Canucks and Hamilton Bulldogs in the 1990s and we would touch base now and again at Copps Coliseum. I could see then that he was on his way to the NHL.

"I felt the NHL was an attainable goal after working the AHL's Calder Cup Final in my first year," said Amell.

He wouldn't have to wait long for the big moment. The following year, he found out he would be working NHL games in the upcoming season.

In his first NHL season, the league made the decision to return to the Olympics in Nagano, meaning there was now another rung on the ladder of success for NHL players and officials.

There would be some career highlights along the way, such as the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, the 2009 and 2012 Stanley Cup Finals as well as the 2012 NHL All-Star Game. Could the Olympics be next?

And then he got the news. Unlike the athletes who are introduced at news conferences, Amell was contacted through e-mail by Stephen Walkom, the NHL's director of officiating. The message was sent on December 1, naming the 13 NHL officials who were chosen to work in Sochi.

Of course, when athletes go to the Olympics, they stay in the Athletes' Village and invite family and friends to share in the experience. Is it the same for the officials?

"The officials stayed together in a hotel right inside the Olympic area. It was great to be together with all the amateur officials," said Amell, who is a married father of two children but did not have any family join him in Sochi.

To work the gold medal game, he had to prove himself again.

"The gold medal officials were chosen by a panel of supervisors from various countries and it was based on performance during the tournament. We were told by e-mail after the semifinal games," said Amell.

When the officials for the gold medal game were announced, former NHL player and Swedish international Peter Forsberg was incensed that Canadians would be working the game but some current Swedish players defended the decision, saying their nationality wouldn't affect their decision-making.
 
"We knew there would be extreme scrutiny on the officiating when it was announced that the officials were Canadian," said Amell. "We knew the players would be comfortable with us since we are all in the NHL. It was more an issue with the media than with the players.

"At the end of the game, the entire Swedish team came over and shook our hands and told us we did a great job. That was very satisfying for us."

So which was more nerve-racking: the first NHL game or the gold medal game?

"Working the gold medal game was the most nerve-racking game I have ever officiated," he admitted.

It's been a long road from collecting shopping carts in Whitby to officiating at the gold medal game in Sochi. And while Amell's appearance at the Olympics may not have been as celebrated as many of the athletes, or even noticed by most viewers, the accomplishment is no less significant.

And just like the athletes, family plays an integral role in the success of officials, offering support and enduring hardships over the years.

"Since we only work 6-8 games a year at home, the family sacrifices are large," said Amell. "I miss most of my children's sports activities and birthdays. They understand the life of an NHL official, but it still can be very difficult on my wife and children," said Amell.

As for the hundreds of people who show up at the airport for our returning athletes, how does the return of an official compare?

"No one met me at the airport," Amell laughed. "It was like coming home from any other road trip!"

The Olympics is a place where dreams can come true. Most people dream of winning a gold medal but don't tell Derek Amell that his accomplishment is anything less. He just achieved his Olympic goal with a lot less fanfare.

And, like a linesman who goes unnoticed when he does a good job, that's the way he likes it.

Derek Amell (third from left) (Photo: TSN.ca)

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(Photo: TSN.ca)
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