The NHL annually holds an officiating camp to introduce players to the world of officiating. Last year, the NHL’s Exposure Combine targeted former junior, college, and professional players. 

“[The 2014 camp] was a great success,” said NHL Officiating Manager Al Kimmel. “We had 56 participants in our first camp. Out of those 56, we took 12 officials that, this past winter, worked at the various minor pro leagues.  The thought for this year’s camp was to get to younger players involved – amateur players – and subject them to the world of officiating and what’s involved and show them that there’s an option after their playing days to stay involved in the game of hockey.”

Al Kimmel addresses the officials at the NHL 2015 Amateur Exposure Combine

Al Kimmel addresses the officials at the 2015 NHL Exposure Combine (Image: Tom Masters/NHL)

This year’s camp focused on midget-age players from 15-19 years of age. The four-day session was effectively a crash course in the life of a hockey official, including actual game experience.

“Our goal,” Kimmel said, “is to show them what’s involved in the process starting out as a young official, going through the ranks, moving their way up in to junior and into minor pro. Show them what’s involved as far as fitness preparation, mental preparation, rules preparation, and the athleticism that’s required to be an official in the game these days.”

We sat down with Kimmel, an Officiating Manager handling Scouting and Development with the league since 2012, to discuss the combine.

Scouting The Refs: What are you looking for from these potential officials coming in?

Kimmel: “The big thing is that you can see the passion that these young players have for the game of hockey,” said Kimmel. “That’s what we’re looking for — people that show that passion, that excitement.  Unfortunately, they may not make it as a player, but officiating is still an opportunity to get out on the ice, be an athlete, show your skating skills, show that mental side that you understand the game and be a valuable asset to the game of hockey in the future.”

“All of us, when we’re young, want to make it to the NHL as players,” said Kimmel, “but the reality of it is that it’s a very limited few who have the ability to make it and, these days, officiating in minor hockey, the numbers have been declining. This is our way to get a group of young athletes together, create some interest, get them excited about participating as an official, and create a greater officiating pool for amateur hockey and potentially for us at the pro level as well.  A greater pool to draw from creates greater competition and improves the officiating product, which ultimately improves the game of hockey.”

STR: What’s the hardest part of transitioning from a player to an official?

Kimmel: “Just grasping the positioning. I know when I transitioned from junior to officiating,” said Kimmel, “[the toughest part was] just understanding the positioning of the game. You have a grasp of the rules, the behavior, and the management of the game but those basic fundamentals of positioning as a linesman and as a referee – those are all things we go through in the camp.  We start off with some classroom, some video and some presentations from some of our staff about positioning, and then we get out on the ice and go through it very slowly so the guys can grasp it.  Then we get into some pick-up games where these young players have opportunities to be involved both as linesmen and as referees and get a feel for whether they have some interest in pursuing [officiating] in the future.”

STR: Is there a specific skill-set you’re looking at for a referee versus a linesman? How do you differentiate who might be a better fit at which position?

Kimmel: “We’re looking for that general athleticism, skating ability, [and] fitness level. All our officials have to have a high level in all those areas these days. Some players, or some officials are just happy to be a linesman, do their job, others want that ability to take charge of a game and be able to be a referee and play that role. We feel everybody out and get an idea from their personality and their mindset of where they might fit in.”

STR: You’d mentioned the mental aspect. Obviously, there’s a lot there for an official that’s not part of the game for a player.  How do you approach that?

Kimmel: “We do some classroom stuff. We have some of our guest coaches on the bench. We try and give some real, live vocals of what happens in a hockey game, get under the skin of some of these guys and see if they’re able to focus on their job on the ice and the game.”

In addition to the 46 amateur officials attending the camp, the NHL also invited 27 of their top minor prospects to act as mentors, answer questions, and provide guidance to the young officials both on and off the ice. Those included linesman Devin Berg, who was recently signed by the NHL for the 2015-16 season.

USA Hockey‘s Scott Zelkin and Todd Anderson from Hockey Canada were also in attendance to give presentations about the officiating process in their respective organizations.  At the end of the weekend, Zelkin and Anderson worked with the players interested in officiating to get them registered for the upcoming season. 

STR: What’s next for these potential officials coming out of the camp?

Kimmel: “We’ll follow up with these players going back to their home organizations and get them implanted so that they’re able to participate as officials this coming year.”

“I think it’s a great opportunity for officiating – both amateur and pro.  It’s good to provide some of these new young officials back to amateur hockey in Canada and the US. We actually have an official from Mexico as well, so it’s worldwide.  We have a referee in our American League staff from Russia [Evgeny Romasko] so we’re looking at providing resources and scouting young prospects from all over the world.” 

“Our goal is to create interest in officiating, keep ex-players involved in the game.  We’ve really found that they’re our best resource moving forward. They understand the game, they have the skills and the athleticism to play the game, and hopefully we can create some interest to keep them involved in officiating and move that aspect forward.”

Officials’ Report

Potential referees and linesmen were treated to a weekend that included presentations from NHL officials Wes McCauley, Paul Devorski, Brad Kovachik, and Steve Kozari. It made for a memorable time with a lot of lessons learned by its participants.

“The main thing I took away from the combine,” said amateur official Lane Gramiak of Winnipeg, Manitoba,”was what it takes to get to the highest level. They really exposed us to how the NHL operates and how hard their staff and prospects have to work to maintain a certain physical level and be ready to step out onto the ice with the greatest players in the world. I got to see how they run their training camps and got to know the people behind the scenes in charge of the NHL Officiating Department.”

NHL Referee Wes McCauley (#4)

NHL Referee Wes McCauley attended the 2015 Exposure Combine

Gramiak’s in his fifth year as an official. He slowly transitioned, pulling double duty as player and official until he wrapped up his Minor Midget season.

“Officiating hockey never really seemed like something I wanted to do professionally until about my third year,” said Gramiak. “I had started to get opportunities where I was officiating and I really focused on it after that. Since then, it has been something that I’m very interested in making a full time career. The combine was a really good reality check for me in terms of what they expect out of their staff and prospects and guys like me who aspire to officiate in the NHL.”

“The on ice sessions were really good, the physical testing was intense, the times where we got to hear stories from guys like Paul Devorski, Wes McCauley, and Steve Kozari were outstanding, and I think just any down time we got to spend in the locker room or in the hotel and restaurants were special because we really got to know each other and hear everyone’s different backgrounds and [their goals in] officiating.”

Amateur official Stephen Finkel, in his third year in stripes, made the trip from Warwick, New York, to attend the camp.

“The combine was one of the best experiences of hockey I have ever had,” Finkel told Scouting the Refs. “Everyone there was a great supporter from day one to day four when we left. I had the pleasure of playing with four [officiating] prospects that are going to be refs in the NHL. I had the pleasure of having dinner with NHL Stanley Cup Officials Wes McCauley and Steve Kozari.”

“I took away that communication is key while officiating,” said Finkel. “It doesn’t matter if you’re talking to a player, coach, or your team of officials on the ice. I learned from some of the greatest officials in the game that you have to work harder and harder every day to create opportunities to be successful in this business.” 

2016 Exposure Camp

Next year, the NHL returns to its Exposure Combine that targets older players, specifically NCAA Division 1, Division 3, CHL, and CIS players.

“A year from now, we’ll be having another pro exposure camp,” said Kimmel. “We’ll be bringing in juniors, college players, and expros once again and we’ve had a lot of interest in that camp already.  It’s a new resource, a new tools that Stephen Walkom brought into our program and so far, so good. It looks like it going to be a useful resource and it’s a great opportunity for players to get initiated and see what officiating is all about.”

Impact of the Combine

NHL Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom spoke with the Boston Globe about the officiating program, and the importance of introducing it early to players. 

“Not too many people out there have ever officiated,” said Walkom. “So when you’ve never done it, it’s hard to really appreciate what the guys on the ice make look easy. And so I’m hoping we can mold some young midget hockey players into at least considering officiating when they’re done playing. If we can get some of these college and university and junior kids to get into the mix, it can only help improve officiating everywhere.”

“We need the athletes. We need the guys that are great skaters,” said Walkom. “We need people that want to serve the game before they get out of shape. Every league needs people like that. So instead of sitting back and hoping that it happens, we’re making sure that it does happen.”

Better officials create better hockey.  At all levels, the hockey improves with the officiating.  For those making the switch, they get to continue their on-ice careers, albeit as referees or linesmen. 

“Just like hockey,” said Kimmel, “Not everybody can make it to the NHL as an official. But if you have that passion and that love for the game, there’s always a place for you to stay involved at some level throughout North America and within the game of hockey.”

The NHL Exposure Camp is looking to help introduce players to those opportunities.