Fraser: The requirements of being an NHL referee

Kerry Fraser

10/26/2011 3:12:39 PM

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Mr. Fraser,
What physical criteria is involved in becoming (and maintaining) an NHL on-ice official - in terms of height, weight, age, etc.? They're not exactly the overweight umpires in baseball who keep a box of donuts in the dugouts to snack on between innings (LOL).
Anxiously awaiting your reply.
Uncle Greg DiLorenzo,
Holbrook, NY

Hey 'Uncle' Greg:

I don't know if you are looking to apply for the job but here are some of the attributes that the NHL Officiating Department looks for in their recruiting efforts throughout North America and around the world as recent as last season with the hiring of 39-year-old Marcus Vinnorborg from Lijungby, Sweden.
In each of the 2,165 NHL games that I refereed, I could always count on receiving "help" from the patrons on the other side of the glass (sometimes 20,000+ strong) that fashioned themselves as experts in the art of officiating. Anyone that thinks they can fill the job requirements please forward your applications to the NHL Officiating Department in Toronto.

Every sport is very demanding to officiate; each with its own unique challenges. If you don't believe me step into our world and umpire a Little League Baseball game or if you really want to challenge your aptitude (and patience) lace up your skates and blow a whistle in a youth hockey game. The coaches and fans that attend those games can be the most biased and difficult to deal with from all levels of sport - they are called 'parents!'  Sarah Palin had it right when she described the only difference between a "Hockey Mom" and a pit-bull was lipstick!

With all due respect to my colleagues in the other major sports the game of hockey is the most difficult to officiate in of all sport. Movement in an athletic shoe on firm turf, field or hardwood is much more natural than skating on a thin skate blade on ice. The very first physical requirement of the job, Greg, is that of superior skating ability. This encompasses balance, agility, mobility, foot speed forward and backwards to place yourself in the very best possible position on the ice to see play and make the best possible judgment. This skill set is a must to also avoid player and puck contact in the confined 200 x 85 foot ice surface so as to not interfere with the game flow and to provide for personal safety.

Another physical requirement beyond athleticism is what you alluded to (LOL) relative to "donuts in the dugout" which implies that a high level of physical conditioning is a must. The NHL Officiating Department, under the direction of David T. Smith, Director of Medical and Fitness sets high personal standards that each official must maintain. Specific programs are created for either rehabilitation of injury or strength and conditioning no differently than the NHL teams provide for their players. Dave Smith performed in this capacity with the New York Rangers (Stanley Cup 1994) and Florida Panthers prior to joining League management.

At the annual training camp for officials, held in September each official, under Smith's direction, completes medicals followed by a rigorous fitness test before they hit the ice. The fitness test includes a VO2 Max test on the bike, Wingate test on the bike (a leg killer), flexibility (stretch and reach), shuttle run drill, sit-ups and push-ups.

Those of us that have existing medical conditions were checked over thoroughly and completed specific tests. As an example I have no ACL in my left knee and am bone on bone following five surgeries. My right knee also has minimal cartilage remaining following three surgeries.  (I am attempting to avoid a fourth surgery following a slight tear suffered in Prague, where I opened my final season (2009-10) with the Rangers and Lightning.)  As a result of these medical conditions I was required to complete a computer generated leg strength/speed evaluation test on the cybex machine each training camp.

In terms of physical size it is quite obvious that hiring practices have changed considerably since Ray Scapinello, Willie Norris and I were hired in the 1970's. At 5'7" I was the tallest of all three of us! If all abilities are relatively equal, size does matter; especially with regard to the linesmen. The "twin towers" of Mike Cvik and Shane Heyer top out at 6'9" without skates and helmets. Combined with their physical strength they have a commanding view from their vantage point on the ice. While few of the linesmen possess this height all of them are very strong physically and hit the gym on a regular basis throughout the season.

To give you an idea of range in age of the elder statesman of the NHL Officials Association is linesman Dan Schachte who is 53 years old and will hit the 2,000 game plateau this season. Dan played hockey at Wisconsin for the late Bob Johnson. The only other Centurion in the linesmen's ranks is Andy McElman. The youngest linesman is newly hired, 27-year-old Matt MacPherson from Antiginish, Nova Scotia.

A total of four referees have celebrated their 50th birthday or beyond. That list includes in order of age, Paul Devorski, Denis LaRue, Don Van Massenhoven and Brad Watson. The young pup in his first year under contract is 26-year-old Graham Skilliter from La Ronge, Saskatchewan. 

As Father Time marches forward it is imperative that older officials work even harder to maintain their conditioning and foot speed if they are to continue in their current capacity.

Last but not least of all I think every hockey official must know the game and understand their specific roll within it. We recognize that no one pays to watch the referee call penalties or for the linesmen to drop pucks and break up fights.  That being said the officials perform a vital service by upholding and maintaining the integrity of the game and keeping the environment safe and fair by enforcing the playing rules as are handed to them by the NHL Rules Committee and Board of Governors. This involves applying a broad authority in judgment that is handed to them. As we know it can be a thankless job given the subjective scrutiny that each call can be reviewed and measure by. Most often the task is performed very well if not to perfection; albeit in the imperfect world called hockey officiating.

As each referee works hard to give the game his very best each night out I am reminded of a couple of cliches that I heard when I signed my first contract with the NHL as a 21-year-old in 1973.

The first was from Hockey Hall of Fame Referee Frank Udvari who discovered me at a referee school after playing my final season of Jr. A hockey when he said:

"You are now a referee. This is the only job where you are expected to start your first game by being perfect and to get better each game after that!"

The other was from my friend Bill Beagan, who as Commissioner of the IHL watched me work my first game in his league in Dayton, Ohio that erupted into a bench clearing brawl.

Tommy McVie was the playing coach for the Dayton Gems and I had no idea what to do in this first time situation for me. The brawl last over 20 minutes and due to my lack of experience all I assessed was two roughing minors and two fighting majors when both benches emptied and everyone on the ice was fighting including the goalkeepers.
At the conclusion of the game, commissioner Bill Beagan kindly guided me in a teaching way as to what I should do when (not if) this situation was to present itself. Before he departed the officials' room he left me with this final thought that has stuck throughout all these years when he said:

"Kerry remember this, from experience you will acquire judgment; from poor judgment you will acquire experience!"

Some just might say I was the most experienced referee in the history of the game...