Officiating in the NHL is a highly-competitive, high-pressure job.
NHL referees and linesmen put up with rowdy players and rowdier fans, both quick to criticize their on ice performance. It’s a thankless job, one where your best night means you go unnoticed on the ice. “You’re not out there to be noticed,” said linesman Brian Murphy. “No one at the end of the day is going to tell you that you did a good job.”
One controversial call, though, and all eyes are on you. Away from the screaming coaches, shouting fans, and argumentative players, league officials are subject to a heavy travel schedule that keeps them moving from town to town, removed from their families.
It’s a tough job. It’s also a hard job to get, with few openings. In any given season, there are just 33 full-time NHL referees, 35 full-time NHL linesmen, and 9 part-time referees splitting duties between the NHL and AHL. Six of those officials had over 25 years of experience with the NHLOA entering the 2013-14 season.
So, how much do these guys get paid?
NHL Referee and Linesmen Salaries
Based on the data below, adjusted for inflation from the time reported, estimated NHL officials’ annual salaries as of 2013-14 as:
NHL Referees: $165k – $360k+
NHL Linesmen: $110k – $235k+
The New York Times in 2009 claimed the pay scale was the same for those in orange bands and those without:
Linesmen break up scuffles between seething players and dodge sizzling pucks, but despite the danger, they are paid not to stick out. They earn $100,000 to $300,000 annually, the same as referees, but a pittance compared with most players’ salaries.
From what’s been reported elsewhere, that’s not quite accurate. Those figures are in line with referee income, but linesmen end up a few dollars short of that. During the 2004-05 NHL lockout, USA Today reported a base salary range for NHL referees of $110,000-$255,000 and $72,000-$162,000 for linesmen.
The Richest concurs with USA Today’s data. So do CNN and Mental Floss. AskMen, while asking if a career in sports officiating is for you, also reported that “no other officials in any of the four major sports leagues make more than those in the NHL, where starters get a $115,000 salary. After a 15-year career, an NHL referee may be looking at an annual pay upwards of $220,000.”
From the Hartford Courant in 1997: “[Linesmen] top out at $125,000 on the union scale after 24 years, roughly 60 percent of what senior referees make.” That works out to a senior referee salary of $208,000, or $310,000 in 2014 dollars.
Minor league officials – the handful of AHL/NHL guys who are under NHL contract but work the bulk of their games in the AHL earn significantly less. Referees reportedly range from $75k-$100k, with linesmen at $50-60k.
Referee Salaries in the Playoffs
NHL players don’t get paid in the playoffs – at least, not formally. Each team does receive a bonus for each round they reach in the postseason. How that is divided is up to the team. What about the officials?
Kerry Fraser reported a similar pay structure for the NHL’s men in stripes:
Officials are paid a bonus for every round of the playoffs they are selected to work. Referees make $18,000 per round while linesmen receive $12,000.
Tournaments – World Cup and Olympics
While no details are available specifically for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, the league’s previous CBA – valid through 2014 – spelled out how officials would be compensated for the World Cup and Olympics. Referees working the World Cup, Olympics, or an equivalent tournament would earn $18,250, with linesmen earning $12,100 to work the event. IIHF tournaments, including the World Championships and the Spengler Cup, would be handled as agreed upon by the NHL and the Officials Association.
Back in 1966, referee Frank Udvari was the highest-paid official in the game, earning a hefty $22,600 annual salary. “Now there are five guys there making $300,000 each,” Udvari, then 90, said laughing. (For the record, that $22k salary equates with around $170k in 2014 dollars.)
Referee Vern Buffey earned about $13,000 for the 1968 season. Standard officials’ fees back then were $220 for a regular season game and $500 for a playoff game. AHL referees at the time made $100 for a regular season game and $125 for playoff matches.
Officials’ Salaries Compared to Players
The average NHL player salary in 1970 was $18,000, so Udvari was doing well, even compared to the players he was overseeing. The disparity between officials and players has grown significantly since then.
Top NHL officials now cap out at a maximum salary of around $300,000, while players earn a league minimum of over $500,000. Two fourth-line thugs can pound away at each other for a combined income of at least a million dollars, while the linesmen – earning significantly less – are left to jump in and break it up.
In 2013-14, 61 players earned more per game than the reported minimum annual salary for a linesman.
Granted, nobody’s coming to watch the referees and linesmen. Fans aren’t necessarily coming to watch fourth-liners either. Still, it’s quite a discrepancy.
These rough estimates will have to do, at least until the eventual time when CapGeek adds ‘officials’ to their data set.
*Originally posted in 2014; updated as necessary as additional information becomes available.
Follow us on Twitter – @scoutingtherefs