Coach to Succeed... Not Set up to Fail
A few notes before I get into the main topic.
1. The new Women's Professional Hockey League (WPHL) is using NHL trainees to officiate. There are no women officials but there are guys who can deliver a more men's style game.
2, Congratulations to Katie Guay. She is now acting as an NHL officiating supervisor. I'm happy for her. Katie should have been the first women to ref an NHL game, though. I think it was another case of lip service being paid to developing a wider pool of NHL officiating prospects without actually putting people in position to succeed on the ice. But I can predict this. Whenever it is that a woman is finally bestowed the chance to officiate in the NHL, it will be a Canadian woman who is given that chance first. The politics of NHL officiating are still very Canada-centric.
So on to the main topic here: As many of you know, I'm an advocate for former hockey players, both male and female, to give officiating a try as a means of staying in the game. There's actually been an uptick in former players entering the pro officiating ranks.
At face value, that's a good thing. Officiating was my ticket to staying in the game after my NHL/WHA and AHL playing career was done. If I could do it successfully, so can many players who embrace the switch with the right work ethic and frame of mind to truly learn the craft.
However, I think a lot has left to be desired with how these player-to-official transitions have worked in practice. I think too many have been rushed into fast-track paths without truly being taught HOW to be an official. I think better and more experienced prospects get bypassed and start to feel discouraged.
There are technical and Rule Book components to training to officiate but the real secret sauce is developing a feel for the art of the craft. That is something that can't be rushed. The old-school way of training was to work young officials through the ringer of working games at various levels in different leagues for as long as it takes for the trainee to either show the readiness to work the top levels or drops from exhaustion.
Was it glamorous? Hell, no. Did it pay well? Hah! Was it effective? Yes. The pretenders got weeded out from the pretenders and those who made it had received a thorough education in technical officiating, officiating psychology, showing accountability and gaining acceptability. It wasn't a gentle process. The critiques could be brutal but good mentors also knew how to lift you up before you were sent back out there.
This was how officials were put in position to succeed -- through honest reviews and constructive advice, mentorship and rites of passage in moving up the ladder. It wasn't about rushing people into positions they weren't ready to handle, leaving them to struggle and then either putting them in even more demanding spots they weren't prepared to handle or deeming the official a "failed experiment' and shuttling them right out the door if they haven't already gone home from some combination of discouragement, loneliness/homesickness or because other career opportunities become available.
I'll let you in on another secret. We have lots of really good young athletes in striped uniforms. That's a prerequisite nowadays for officiating. That's a good thing. But what we don't have enough of are candidates who've learned HOW to be good pro officials. It's because their preparation is not what it should be, and the caliber of mentorship is nowhere near adequate.
That's a shame. As a long-time assignor, supervisor and officiating director, I totally understand the pressures of recruitment and retention. But for the good of the game, and the people who do enter the officiating ranks with every honorable intention, I don't think we've done anyone a favor by cutting corners on the development cycle. It takes time. And the pool of "genuine" candidates should not be limited by nationality, gender or degree of playing background.
We need good prospects. Good trainers and mentors. Good directors who know when to stand up to those who don't understand what's involved in development.
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.