The Ontario Minor Hockey Association recently sat down to talk with one of their former officials, NHL linesman Derek Amell.
NHL linesman Derek Amell has been in the league for 17 years. His first game was between the Carolina Hurricanes and Pittsburgh Penguins back in 1997. Since then, the Port Colburne, Ontario, native has manned the lines for over 1,000 regular season games and more than 100 NHL playoff games.
Amell worked the Stanley Cup Final in 2009, 2012, and 2014. He also covered the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Amell had a memorable on-ice moment this past season when a Dallas Stars fan celebrated a hat trick by throwing a cowboy hat on the ice — which Amell promptly picked up and placed atop his helmet.
OMHA: How did you get into refereeing?
Derek Amell: “I was 21, in my second year at Durham College taking Chemical Engineering Technology, and delivering pizzas at night and basically not going out with any of my friends.”
“I used to play hockey with the referee assigner’s son. After running into him, he said his dad was looking for referees so I went and talked to him about what I needed to do. I went to a clinic, got certified, and was assigned to Novice out of Harman Arena and went from there.”
OMHA: How did you make it to the OHL?
Amell: “For me, it happened rather quickly. After my first year as an official with the OMHA, I got hired by the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA) to do Junior C and Junior B hockey. After two seasons of doing both OMHA and OHA officiating, I was invited by the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) to come down to Guelph and do a tryout.”
“In my fourth year with the OHL, the American Hockey League (AHL) came to Hamilton so they grabbed six linesmen out of the Southern Ontario area and I was lucky enough to get that call. That year I did the OHL finals and I also got the chance to do the Calder Cup final my first year in the American League.”
“The following summer, Bryan Lewis from the National Hockey League called me and offered me a job as a 40/40 linesmen which meant I would do half the games in the American League and half the games in the National Hockey League.”
OMHA: What are of the major differences between the AHL and the OHL, or the AHL and NHL?
Amell: “The biggest difference between the AHL and OHL is dealing with professional hockey players that do it for a living. From the AHL to the NHL, the biggest step obviously is the increase in pressure. The hockey is better and everything is on the tape in the NHL which makes it easier sometimes to officiate the games but when something happens, the media gets involved, the pressure.”
OMHA: Describe a typical game day in the NHL.
Amell: “The four guys officiating the game will all meet in the city of the game for lunch. It is a great time for us to talk about the game that night and discuss stuff that happened the night before. If anyone has recently officiated either team, that person usually sheds some light on tendencies. I might not work with some of these guys more than once or twice a year since we are on our own schedules so it’s always good to catch up.”
“After lunch, I’ll check in to the hotel and call my wife to see how everything went with the kids. I lay down for an hour-and-a-half to two hours for a little pre-game nap. When I wake up, I usually relax for another hour or so to prepare for the game then I meet up with the rest of the officiating crew and head over to the arena together.”
“We get to the rink at least an hour before the game to get ready. We go over tendencies again and getting prepared for the night ahead. After the game we usually go back to the hotel for dinner and call it a night around 12:00 – 12:30. Some of the crew will usually be out on an 8:00am flight for their next game so they will be up and out the door by 5:30.”
OMHA: What challenges do you face officiating such a quick sport?
Amell: “[NHL hockey in] 2014 is a lot different than when I started in 1997 that’s for sure! The scrutiny is unbelievable. The average fan doesnt realize it but with replay, sports documentaries, social media and over 20 cameras in an arena on a given night, everything is magnified. All these things are great for the game but as an official and for our job it has made it a lot more difficult. Fans sometimes overlook the fact that we see the game at one speed and we only get one chance to make the right call.”
OMHA: What conditioning is required to be successful as a linesman?
Amell: “[In] this day in age as linesmen you better be over 6’2 and 210 lbs to start because the players are so much bigger, it has made it a necessity for larger officials. Personally, I run 5 miles every single morning in the off season and workout with weights. I focus on core strength and cardio as I get older. A lot of the younger guys I work with do a lot of weight lifting as well. It’s a full time job to stay in shape to prepare for the season. The league expects all officials to be in top form and they do fitness testing.”
OMHA: What’s travel like for an NHL on-ice official compared to the players?
Amell: “It’s a lot of hotels, airports and hockey arenas, entering through the basement. It’s a full time job, 100,000 miles in nine months and 170 hotel nights in a season. You’re basically gone 22 days a month.”
“We are doing three times the amount of travel as NHL teams and no home series. They play half their games at home while the average referee might do six games in their hometown a year.”
“It’s really demanding. We use commercial flights, not chartered flights like teams. It took my a while but I figured out how to travel efficiently and how to take care of my body while on the road, and rest at night. That’s what usually burns out guys in this business, more than anything else, is the travel.”
OMHA: What’s the best part of the job?
Amell: “It used to be the travel for me but after seventeen years as an official, that’s a bit past me. I have been to every NHL city a handful of times.”
“Now, for me, being on the ice is just so rewarding. To be 45 years old and be skating along side guys like Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos…. Working and thinking about hockey all day is a tremendous honor and still a passion for me.”
OMHA: How does working a game in the Stanley Cup Final compare to a regular season game?
Amell: “[It’s] night and day, no comparison. Even from the third round to the Cup Final, it’s a big step. After my first or second time through a third round, I wasn’t ready. I did three [Conference Finals] rounds before I was asked to do the Finals and I was like, ‘I’m ready to do it,” but I was blown away when I did my first Stanley Cup game with the media focus. The commitment and travel involved was much higher. We went from New Jersey to Los Angeles every four days. Back and forth across the country for two weeks was very mentally and physically tough.
OMHA: How was your time working the Winter Olympics in Sochi?
Amell: “It was way better than I thought it was going to be. It was unbelievable how nice and accommodating the Russian people were to us. They were very kind and generous to us and our accommodations were spectacular. The whole experience was just phenominal. The guys were great to work with. There was very much a sense of a team atmosphere within the group of officials. The food was just okay, that might be the only negative thing I have to say about the entire experience but different countries have different tastes, so it’s sometimes expected.
OMHA: Do you have a favorite game?
Amell: “It will probably be the [2014 Winter Olympic] Gold Medal game when I look back on my career. That will probably go down as the biggest game I’ll get to work.”
“Making my first Stanley Cup Final game is my proudest moment because I know how good the NHL staff is, so it’s an achievement to be recognized with an assignment of that caliber.”
OMHA: How about a favorite arena to work?
Amell: “Montreal on a Saturday night doesn’t get much better. The atmosphere, the fans — Saturday night in Montreal. There’s a buzz at the hotel, there’s a buzz at the restaurant we eat at. It’s hockey you know. Toronto is fun, too, but I find it a lot more corporate. I still find Montreal loves hockey. I also enjoy going to Chicago a lot, it’s a fun building to work in now.”
OMHA: Is there any significance behind you wearing #75?
Amell: “There’s no real reason behind it. When I got hired, Bryan Lewis asked me what number I wanted, my wife said 75 sounds good, so I have been wearing it my whole career.”
OMHA: What advice do you have for young officials?
Amell: “Work hockey games! I never remember ever turning down an assignment. I worked every single night for years on end with a full time job. You get better with practice, it’s like an apprenticeship.”
“It’s a game of mistakes, for players, coaches, and officials. The more you work, the more you’re going to minimize your mistakes. There’s never a bad hockey game to train your skills. Whether it’s a Peewee house league game or a Midget AAA game, they all can teach valuable skills that can applied to all areas of the game and life.
“The NHL is not the be-all and end-all for officiating. There are tons of people that have plenty of success through amateur sport. I worked the Olympics with half of the guys who are amateurs – they don’t do this full time. There’s also university and college and minor hockey games out there. The opportunities are awesome.”
“At the end of the day, I started officiating hockey to get back into the game. It wasn’t about the money, it was about getting back into the game since I wasn’t playing any more. I love hockey, it’s a passion and if you don’t have that passion for the game you won’t have fun in this position.”
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