Referees and linesmen will be trading in their whistles for gloves and sticks as they hit the ice for the 2015 Zebra Cup at HarborCenter in Buffalo, New York. The officials-only tournament is slated for July 24-26 and is open to officials from USA Hockey, Hockey Canada, NCAA, NHL, AHL, ECHL, and other professional or semi-pro leagues.
Chris Ciamaga, the man behind the Zebra Cup, is currently the Assistant Director of Hockey at HarborCenter. The East Aurora, New York, native was an NHL referee from 2008-2011. He’s also worked games in the AHL, ECHL, USHL, and NCAA, along with international tournaments with the IIHF. We caught up with Ciamaga on a rare day off away from the rink to talk about the Zebra Cup.
“I played in a Zebra Cup back in 2003,” Ciamaga recalled. “Our team was ridiculous. We had a bunch of NHL guys – Kelly Sutherland, [Tim] Nowak, [Scott] Driscoll, [Stephen] Walkom, Kevin Collins, [Jay] Sharrers, [and Paul] Devorski. It was awesome.”
The inaugural Zebra Cup was held in Las Vegas in 1995. The event continued there until 2004. In 2010, a handful of officials including Rob Martell, Andy McElman, and Derek Nansen participated in a tournament in Nashville. Ciamaga, though, is looking to bring the Zebra Cup back to its roots as a stripes-only event.
“I’ve always talked about it,” said Ciamaga. “I started officiating in the USHL with a great group of guys. We always talked about a reunion – getting back together and playing some golf. Now I’m at HarborCenter and I figured I should get a Zebra Cup going here. It makes sense. Buffalo is great in the summer. People can come in on Thursday. They set up a concert stage, so there’s concerts right outside on the water. My plan is to eventually have all the guys come in on Thursday, play golf, enjoy a concert, and stay downtown.”
Ciamaga’s goal is also to have representation from across the hockey world. “I really like it when the officials from each league are represented,” he said. “Team NHL, Team American Hockey League, Team ECHL, Team Big Ten, Team ECAC, etc. and then you just keep it going. You put names on the trophy. It’s bragging rights for the year, you have some fun, get together, and play some hockey.”
STR: So what kind of hockey are we in for at the Zebra Cup? Is it tough to put down those whistles and pick up sticks?
Ciamaga: A lot of the guys are pretty good hockey players. Obviously, Dan O’Rourke and Wes McCauley, guys like that can play. The younger guys coming in now are good, but even some of the older guys are really good hockey players. You’d be surprised. Kevin Pollock’s good. Scott Driscoll played Major Junior. Ghislain Hebert’s a good hockey player. Go down the whole list – a bunch of guys are good. Better than you think.
STR: Obviously, nearly every official started out playing the game. When you make that jump to officiating, does it change the way you approach playing the game?
Ciamaga: A little bit, yeah. Honestly, when I got into officiating, I had no idea what it was all about. [Before that], I didn’t focus too much on officiating. Once I started officiating and kept playing, you obviously know the rules better, so it changes your perspective of the game.
STR: With a tournament of teams made up of referees and linesmen, who officiates the games?
Ciamaga: [Laughs] The sorry son-of-a-guns who don’t sign up to play! We’ll have enough good guys locally who can officiate these games.
STR: What’s it been like for the on-ice officials working a Zebra Cup?
Ciamaga: One thing I do remember from when I played… It all depends. It could go either way. If things start to get a little hairy, guys can be a little ruthless during the games.
STR: As a younger referee, it sounds like a great opportunity to be on the ice for this – either as a player or an official.
Ciamaga: It ‘s definitely a good thing. I assign all the officials for all the tournaments that we run at HarborCenter, and I’m not afraid to put young guys in there and mix it up. It might be pairing a younger guy with an older guy. It all depends on what teams come through. If there’s teams that have a bunch of veteran referees, there would be a good for a younger guy to be out there.
STR: It’ll be memorable either way, whether it’s sending an NHL ref to the penalty box or lining up against one for a faceoff.
Ciamaga: When I played in 2003, I hadn’t been hired [by the NHL] yet, but obviously had been officiating for a few years and knew a lot of the officials. It was a pretty wild experience for me playing with those guys.
The 2015 Zebra Cup at HarborCenter is shaping up to be a great event at a terrific facility. There’s still time to get your team together and sign up. Just do us a favor — go easy on the refs, okay?