Earning Your Stripes

by Manny Brizuela

Banter between rival sides is as much a part of hockey as the ice itself. But it’s the biggest team that takes the bulk of all scrutiny—the officials.

Much like the players we watch on the ice, referees clock-in a serious amount of time to their job. Climbing the ranks is no easy task as a combination of skating ability, intuition, knowledge of the game and discretion are all needed simultaneously. Whether you are a level-I or level-IV, officials are told to work as many games as possible because repetition is the key to consistency.

The message is the same at the annual WSHL California Officials Camp. One of five camps held, the California camp is the largest bringing in roughly 80 to 120 officials with various levels of experience. The main objective at the camp is to foster the right philosophy that will guide you from your first stretch of games to your last.

“This year alone we have five separate camps,” WSHL Referee in Chief Roger Klein said. “Over the next month or so we will be holding camps in Colorado, Seattle, Canada and Dallas. California and Colorado are usually the two biggest camps we have.”

The camps are not necessarily the only way to wear the stripes in the WSHL. But it is the best opportunity to gain exposure particularly for those just getting started. The camp features a couple of segments, both on-ice and off-ice, to gauge the level of each individual.

The morning starts off on the ice with a good stretch before transitioning into a power skate session. The segment gives supervisors a chance to see the officials who have proper stride technique, able to move up and down the ice, and have trained in power skating. Next up are drills that are tailored to an official’s game, such as, crashing-the-net, positioning, and overall gesticulation. The afternoon is reserved for a class-like session of pure rule knowledge. The officials are taught and examine video to engage in healthy discourse with instructors and themselves.

“It’s not about incompetence or who should be there or not,” Klein said. “We invite those who want to ref our [WSHL] league to attend the camp and give them something to strive for. We can obviously tell by skating ability, rule knowledge, and where they have worked before if we can move them up or not.”

You will often hear an official state they are any one of four levels. USA Hockey certifies officials based on a numerical scale with level-I being a rookie, if you will, and level-IV being a veteran. Although the WSHL is a member of the AAU, its linesmen are all level-III and head officials are level-IV USA Hockey certified. 

“Typically the higher the level they are in shows their line of dedication and how long they have been officiating,” Klein said. “A first year ref in the U.S. can only have a level-I. Being a level-IV doesn’t necessarily mean that they can skate a game in the WSHL, it just means that their rule knowledge and ability should be close to par for what we’re looking for.” 

Be that as it may, the best officials will have the level-IV certification and that helps whittle down the number of prospective refs for the WSHL.

The majority of leagues will have a crop of young officials with similar experience levels who are trying to scale up. One of the advantages that the WSHL has is the ability to mesh seasoned knowledge with a fresh mentality.   

“We have officials that have worked over 15-hundred games in minor-pro, major-pro, and we have officials that it’s going to be their first game at the junior level,” Klein said. “We actually have guys that have five or six years working in the AHL or ECHL and are now working for us. They are basically giving back to the system so we can pair them with a younger guy to not just leave them out there straggling to learn for themselves.”

In other words, an official just starting out can be on the ice with another official who has worked at almost the highest level in hockey.  And it’s no different at the officials camp where the more experienced referees take it upon themselves to assist the newer ones who may not have their stripes yet. 

“The Western States Hockey League is a really great league to work for,” Klein said. “We strive really hard to not only put the best product on the ice but to also train and develop the officials to move them on. Our goal is not to keep them in the WSHL it’s to see them make it at a higher level.”