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Developing Officiating Prospects Similar -- Not Identical -- to Players

May 11, 2020, 2:50 AM ET [1 Comments]
Paul Stewart
Blogger •Former NHL Referee • RSSArchiveCONTACT
In the comments section to my last blog, I was asked if I would like to see an organized effort to recruit more former players to try officiating as a way to stay in the game. The answer to that is "absolutely, yes" whether their highest level of play was junior hockey, college hockey, North American or European minor league hockey or the NHL. Doesn't matter to me if it's a male or female ex-player, either.

We need more good athletes, good hockey minds, and good people in general (whatever their highest level of play) who are not only willing to give hockey officiating a try but have the commitment and courage to stick through the inevitable bumps in the road. There are zero guarantees of making it to the NHL, and the path is a difficult one.

When you don the striped sweater, you are starting all over again. The longer you played, the more you realize how little you actually knew about officiating. Even if you have an innate feel for the game, you have readjust your psychology as well as learning the technical aspects and gaining consistency. You also learn that the Rule Book has many more nuances, vague instructions, archaic provisions and even outright contractions that you ever realized when you played.

The process of training officiating prospects is, in some regards, much like training the prospects who play the game. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Everyone will develop at his or her own pace. Everyone deals with certain x-factors (such working through or rehabbing injuries). The quality of the coaching the prospect receives can significantly help or hinder the process. Everyone needs someone who believes in his or her abilities. Development is rarely linear; there were be some missteps and periods in which improvements are very subtle rather than dramatic.

Lastly, there is a real danger in rushing prospects into situations where they could find themselves over their heads because they simply aren't ready for it. There is no substitute for gaining experience and learning valuable lessons (sometimes the hard way). Just throwing someone in the water and shouting "Swim!" is more likely to cause someone to drown than to become the next Mark Spitz or Michael Phelps.

If training hockey officials was like instant oatmeal -- just add water and stir -- anyone could be a referee or linesman. Sorry, folks, but it takes many years for an official to develop properly. Even the very prospects out there -- great skating and athleticism, courageous, good hockey sense, a quick study on positioning, studies the Rule book, etc. -- is going to need to skilled coaching and a significant number of games under the belt.

Anyone can point out a missed call. The value of personal experience and constructive coaching is to teach the officials not to make the same errors over and over again. The value of first-hand experience is to craft mental tools for the young officials' mental tool boxes.

Officials are only human, and one of the biggest challenges for a young official -- much like a young player -- is to overcome an early mistake in a game and not to let it snowball. It is easy to say that once a call (or play) is over, it's over.

During my playing days, I did not typically get a lot of ice time. That gave me too much opportunity to sit on the bench and dwell on a mistake. I didn't know when my next shift would be, or even if there would be another one. Yes, my main job was to fight but I was still a hockey player.

As an official, the challenge is a little bit different because you are out there the entire game. Believe me, no hollering coach, cussing player or bellowing crowd (in pre-social distancing times, I suppose) is a bigger critic than the official himself. It takes a lot of mental toughness -- a bit similar to a goaltender's mentality in some ways -- to instantly put aside a miscue. It times years of experience to develop that type of mental acuity.

Trying to educate young officials takes time and patience. Time and patience is something with some latitude will eventually show in accomplished arbiters on the ice. In the meantime, all those that buy tickets want instant perfection. Sorry to disappoint but it takes time to bake a good cake and much more time to build a good referee or linesman.


A 2018 inductee into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.

Visit Paul's official websites, YaWannaGo.com and Officiating by Stewart.
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