Michel Voyer runs one of the top officiating schools in the US. It’s far from the hockey hotbed of Minnesota, and even farther from the hockey-crazed northeast. The Montreal native decided over two decades ago to head west and set up shop in sunny El Segundo, California. Since then, over 300 California Referee School graduates have gone on to officiate minor and professional hockey.
Scouting the Refs spoke with him about this year’s program, which included a ton of talented instructors. Joining Voyer on the ice were NHLers Mike Leggo and Shane Heyer, along with NHL Officiating Manager and former ref Rob Shick. Other officiating supervisors in the program included Dan Monacelli (CSHL), Mike Pearce (ECHL), Steve Stevens (Pacific Referee-in-Chief), and Mark Faucette (USA Hockey). Don Adam (NCHC Director of Officiating) provided power skating instruction, while Mike Bahn (US Ski and Snowboard Team) led the off-ice strength and conditioning.
Scouting the Refs: What types of backgrounds and experience do you have in camp? Is it a diverse group?
Michel Voyer: Some officials are 18-25, probably 30-35 of them. Those kids want to probably pursue a career. They worked midget level and now they want to get to junior level and the minor league pro.
It’s a process. They get scouts from the junior program and the minor league pros. Rob Schick from the NHL is also at the school. It’s not like somebody is going to get hired by the NHL right away. It’s a process. [The officiating managers] talk with the other supervisors. They say, “That kid, I like him.” At that young age – 18 or 20 years old – they put him in a two-year program and keep a file on him. Every camper sends a profile of themselves with where they’ve worked in the past, the name, the age, how long they’ve been a ref, where they live. All the supervisors have a profile from each camper, so the junior program gets those profiles. Every supervisor, when they talk, the NHL says, “Keep that kid in mind. Let me know about his progression during the year.” Next year they come back to the camp — most of the campers come back — and we can see the progression of the referees.
Camp is not only for those kids who want to work in the NHL. We have older officials, too, at the school because when you get to the age of 30 or 35, the goal to be in the NHL is done, because the NHL looks at younger officials. Those older officials work to get better at USA Hockey, kids hockey, or college hockey. They also become mentors to all of those young officials and become better supervisors. We have a class at the school where we take all those older referees and teach them how to become mentors to young officials – how to teach, go back to their association, andshare with all those young kids what they learned at the school, so it’s open to everybody. We have female officials too. [There are] five female officials this year who came to school and they do pretty well. USA Hockey has a big program for women’s hockey. The door’s open for everybody.
STR: How do you instruct different levels of officials? Are there challenges in instructing varied ages and levels of experience?
MV: Lots of skating drills. We have a lot of skating during the camp. To become a good official, you have to be a good skater. We also have off-ice drills. We do a lot of training off-ice and also have games. We hold a scrimmage that some officials participate in and referee the games so we can scout them to see how they do as an official during a hockey game.
We don’t go over too much about the rules during the school. We talk about psychology of the game and communication with players and coaches. That’s a big key to becoming a good official and we push a lot on that. We also focus on teamwork. Be responsible in what you do. You accept assignments, be on time.
STR: How important is communication on the ice?
MV: If a referee can’t communicate with coaches and players, he’s not going to be successful. You have to have good communication with players. If you’re a good communicator with players and coaches, you’re going to be a successful referee. The psychology of the game, the feel of the game, that’s what we teach at the school. Get along with your fellow officials. It’s the whole package you have to have. [In a four-man system] you need to all get along, ensure coverage, work together, and manage the crew.
STR: How much experience are you looking for in an official coming to camp?
MV: The school is open to everybody. If you’re a first year official or a guy who has worked 20 years as official, we have a class for that. It’s open to all officials with one year of experience.
STR: For an official considering coming to your camp next summer, what should he or she work on now?
MV: Be a good skater. Love the game. Care about the game. Be a good communicator. You know what, try to improve your weakness. If you feel you have a weakness, or something you can work to try and improve, do it during the season. Watch some tape.
We have a lot of videos at the school of game situations that we watch because it’s easier to learn with examples. If you see something on TV, there’s a lot of examples from NHL games that we watch or junior, or minor pro. We watch that and have a class discussion. We take a group of ten officials with an instructor in a class and we ask them about their past experience and what they’ve learned from their mistakes. We ask for examples of what happened during a game, a bad situation, and how it could have been handled in a better way.
STR: With Mike Leggo, Shane Heyer, and Rob Shick, you have a lot of experience on the ice in camp.
MV: Oh my God, those guys are a package of experience. Not only them, but lots of those supervisors [at CA Ref School] have been on the ice before and through a lot of different situations. To have those guys there and have them share their experience… They tell the campers they’re not perfect, too. Even in the NHL, they make mistakes. With everything in the NHL, even minor pro and college, everything is on TV and everything is reviewed. They learn when they make a mistake how to correct that the next time to not make that same mistake. Everybody has bad games. How to forget about that game, learn from that game, and not have another bad situation in the future, that’s a big key, too.
Being an official is not an easy job. We’ll never be perfect there – especially kids. We ask young kids to make adult decisions. We have a 16-year old who is going to referee a peewee game, but he’s going to have to make decisions and deal with the parents, the coaches, and all the aspects of the game. We teach them how to react to those situations.
STR: How do you help kids approach that aspect of the game, managing parents and coaches? That can be very intimidating for a younger official.
MV: At the Toyota Sports Center, the [Los Angeles] Kings’ practice facility, I’m in charge of the officials. When we take on young officials, it’s very important, we tell them to ask for an adult to be with you when you referee. It’s a three-official system. You can request, or your supervisor or scheduler should put an adult with you so to calm the situation down. If a bad suitation happens, the adult can step in and help the young official. I read article this past month that a lot of officials quit because they get discouraged by the coaches and the parents. That’s a big problem, too. When dealing with adults – parents and coaches – it helps for the young kid to be with an adult.
Supervision is very important for young kids. If you supervise them one game, is everything fine? No, you have to keep following up on the kids. You need to be with them for future games. If a tough situation happens, we need to talk to the kid after to say, “Hey, that happened to me before.” I’ve been refereeing for 30 years and that’s what I tell the kids, “It’s happened to me, now I’m going to help you to get back, to get over that situation.”
It’s very important to tell them, “What you’re going through right now, I’ve been through that before,” and how I got out of it or how I corrected it. I’m giving him all the tools. You need to talk to the kids after that and be there for them. You cannot let a young kid have a bad situation [and not address it.] Let’s say you have a tough game. He’s going to go back home , he’s going to be discouraged. He might not want to ref after that or he might want to take a break. No. You’ve got to bring it back and follow up with him and be there for them. That’s a big thing I do here at the Toyota Sports Center.
STR: You’re giving lots of officials a jump start on their careers. How did you get your start in stripes?
MV: I was a junior player in my hometown in Quebec. I was a goalie [with the Chicoutimi Sagueneens], so I was already used to watching the play on the ice all the time. I had an injury and decided I wanted to still be part of the game, so I started refereeing there 33 years ago. I moved to Los Angeles 27 years ago with my wife, Sandra, who’s in the movie business — she’s a costume designer. She had an opportunity to work, so we moved [to California] and met some great people here.
Adult hockey in California today is a big, big business. When I first moved here, it started to pick up after Wayne Gretzky moved here. Pat Brisson, the agent, got involved in the adult league like 27 years ago. He asked me to be the guy to help them out on the aspect of officiating. They said, “Why don’t you put a school together?” so I brought my good friend from Montreal, former NHL referee Ron Fournier. [Ron and I] had a referee school in Montreal for 23 years. He was my first instructor here and he give me my big chance. Now, 26 years later, there are a lot of kids from California [playing professional hockey.] Not only players, but now we have kids from California that are referees working in the American Hockey League, the ECHL, and college. It’s great to see that.
Now we have retired NHL players [in California] coaching the young kids. I would say probably 70% of the staff, all the coaches here, the kids’ hockey, they have an ex-NHL player behind the bench. I tell the referees, “When you go talk to those guys, you cannot make up stories. You’ve got to tell them the truth. You cannot BS then. You’ve got to show up and be professional, starting from a young age.” The clubs are getting better. The quality of coaches is getting better. With the money the kids pay, we owe that to everybody [to remain professional]. If you accept an assignment on the ice, you have to be on top of your game and care about the game. We see some kids – even adults – officiating a hockey game [that are] kind of lazy. That’s unacceptable because refereeing is something that you accept to do. With qualified people behind the bench, they expect at least a good effort from us. Do your job, know your rules, and come with the whole package.
STR: What’s the secret to being a successful referee?
MV: You have to want it. If it’s your goal, the tools are there, the exposure is there. If you want to make a career out of it, you’ve got to want it.
If you want to work on your tools – or any part of your game – Michel and his team at California Referee School would be glad to help you. Look what they did for first-timer Andrew Santino:
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