Referee Bill McCreary talks with Sidney Crosby during Game 2 of last year's Stanley Cup final. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
“If you don’t have butterflies and you’re not nervous for your first game then, I’m not sure you’re in the proper business.” – David Banfield, NHL referee
They say you have to be a different kind of person to want to be a goaltender. After all, who in their right mind would elect to have discs of rubber rifled at them and embrace the challenge of blocking those frozen flying pucks?
And while that sounds nightmarish enough for most, what kind of person does it take to have the weight of two hockey-fan nations and the outcome of a critical game on their shoulders, all while dealing with the distraction of taunting fans and irate coaches?
“From the day I started, I wanted to be a referee in the NHL,” said Chris Rooney, an NHL referee since 2000. “So I reffed all youth hockey and Jr. B and Jr. C through high school. When I graduated, I went to college for a year and after that I moved out to Des Moines, Iowa and worked the USHL for two years. Then I did three years as an NHL trainee and that’s when the NHL signed me to a contract.”
Welcome to ‘A Ref’s Life.’
It’s a job many onlookers think they can do better than the ones wearing the orange bands after a disagreeable call is made, but there is more to this job than meets the eye through a television screen or reverse replay angle.
Building off the popularity of last season’s ‘A Scout’s Life’ feature, every other week we will explore what it takes, what it means to be and what goes through the mind of an official to familiarize fans with this polarizing corner of the game. We’ll not only touch on NHL referees, but also the minor leagues, junior leagues, all the way down to the local minor hockey level where it all begins.
“I grew up not a great hockey player, so, fortunately, I learned at a young enough age I wasn’t going to go anywhere playing,” said pro referee David Banfield. “My dad was a ref himself, so I came home one day and asked him and I started minor hockey on the eastern shore in Cole Harbour.”
It’s in the cold rinks for mite games Saturday morning where a different kind of dream begins. While a novice-aged Sidney Crosby was dominating at the beginner level and aspiring towards the NHL in Nova Scotia, Banfield was reffing the young phenom, but thinking of a completely different route to the big league.
Seeing the game from a ref’s point of view is unlike any other angle. At first it’s all about learning the rules and positioning, then as you move from the beginner levels up to rep leagues and bodychecking, you get a feel for the flow of a game, what areas to keep an eye on and, yes, how to deal with everyone who has interpreted a play differently than you.
Eventually, though, the ambitious of the bunch outgrow minor hockey and seek out a new challenge to start working up to the professional ranks, much like players who desire to one day suit up for an NHL team.
When Banfield was 19, he contacted Scott Brand, the head of USA Hockey’s officiating department, to discuss how to move up. Banfield worked a few USA Hockey games that year before the organization got him an employment visa and offered him games at the United States League, America West League and United League levels.
While moving up, the challenge for a referee is always changing. Aside from the many personal sacrifices that have to be made with being away from friends and family, each level brings new aspects, angles and rules of engagement. There’s a difference between reffing juniors and reffing men and it’s the job of an official to understand and fully embrace each league and level he is in charge of.
“Learning about the league you have to work, learning the players and coaches and dealing with them; it’s their livelihood, so you have to be able to understand that and respect that and be able to listen on top of being authoritative,” Banfield said. “Each level you go you’re the rookie, so you’re just trying to establish yourself and make an identity for yourself and not be afraid to either make a call or go over to these people and introduce yourself.”
Just as a young player may bounce around the farm leagues before making it as a full-time NHLer, there are six minor-league contracted officials – of which Banfield is one –who work some NHL games during the year, but also are responsible for the American League.
If you earn positive reviews and do a good job in the AHL, the NHL will come knocking with an offer for the greatest opportunity a referee can get, putting on the arm bands for a game in the best hockey league on the planet.
And just like a player whose life-long dream comes true when he steps onto the NHL surface for the first time, a referee goes through the same surreal emotions. Even recalling the experience can leave you speechless.
“My first game was in Minnesota on St. Patty’s Day in ’07,” Banfield said. “First of all, getting ready for the game – the adrenaline, the emotion of having family and friends there was just unbelievable. And then stepping onto the ice was just…20,000 in a rink is something I’d never experienced in the American League, so that was a big-time adjustment. Mick McGeough let me drop the puck at center ice to start the game and when Joe Sakic, a Hall of Famer, looks up at you and says ‘Congratulations, welcome to the league.’ That was pretty special.”
A Ref's Life is a look at the world of officiating from the NHL level down through to the minor league level. We'll talk to different referees from all levels of the game, getting a first-hand perspective of the different aspects of the profession. A Ref's Life will appear bi-weekly through the NHL season.
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web content specialist and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appears Tuesdays.
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