Earlier this summer, referee Kyle Rehman joined Pat Steinberg and Rob Kerr on Sportsnet 960. The 36-year-old official, now entering his ninth year in the league, talked about his offseason move, rules changes, on-ice discussions, and working his way up to the National Hockey League.
Rehman Heads South
Though he’s been training in Red Deer, the Alberta native has settled in a new spot 1,500 miles due south. Rehman spent part of his summer relocating to the sunny skies of Phoenix, Arizona.
“When I got hired,” said Rehman, “they said right away there’s a good chance I was going to have to get relocated. It’s in our CBA. When I got hired full-time, Terry Gregson was our boss and he also made the comment that, ‘Listen, just a heads up, there’s a good chance you’re going to have to get relocated.’ So I knew it’s been coming and we’ve been talking now for the last year and Stephen [Walkom]’s been really great. He’s phenomenal. He wants to see what’s best for ourselves and also for our careers. We worked it out that Phoenix was a spot and once I got the greenlight to go down there, it’s been exciting. Now I can come home off the road, when I am home for those five days a month, and maybe, if it’s nice I can still play a little golf. I don’t have to worry about shoveling sidewalks or making snowmen.”
“If you look at the geographical positioning of our guys, we don’t have a lot of guys out west. We talked about a few different locations and Phoenix seemed to work both for myself and for the league. I really appreciate that when Stephen allowed me to go there because it’s going to work great for me. I have family down there, [and] it’s an easy flight for people to come down. Trust me, I’ve got five bedrooms and pretty much all of them are spoken for already! It’s crazy. People are calling and texting. They’re already asking, ‘Is it okay if we come when you’re on the road?’ and stuff like that, so it’ll be a busy place but it’ll be fun.”
“I’ve been moving so much my whole life that, hopefully, this is going to be one of my last homes.”
Though Rehman’s location helps with the league’s goal of having officials spread out across the US and Canada, it doesn’t factor into where he’ll work games.
“There’s 30 cities and I’ve got to get around to every single one of them. I guess the one thing that will be nice, [is that] now I’m only crossing the border seven times rather than 23 and that’s where the big difference is. I can get to every city [via] direct [flights], except for Montreal and Ottawa.”
Aside from the move, Rehman’s been spending his summer in the gym and on the links. “I’ll start skating when I get down to Phoenix,” said Rehman, “but mostly I’m just here at the gym. The rest of the day, [I’ll] do a little golf, a little relaxing, whatever else is on the plate.”
As for his actual workout regimen, it’s a partnership between the official and Dave Smith, the NHL’s fitness guru.
“Dave, who’s been with us for as long as I’ve been on staff, does a great job with our guys. I’ve had a problem with my shoulder the last couple years, so he’s just an email or a call away. He’s been very supportive making sure, medically, everything’s good to go. […] I’m all healed up now and finally cleared to do some more weights.”
Rehman discussed his shoulder injury. He suffered three tears in his rotator cuff after getting caught up in a collision between Zack Kassian and Ryan Reaves during a game between the Canucks and Blues in Vancouver. The Rehman, at 5-foot-8, stood no chance against the 6-foot-3 Kassian and 6-foot-1 Reaves.
“I kind of got out of the way but when they were going down I was holding on to – I think it was Kassian’s jersey and we all went down. I jammed my shoulder pretty good. I remember one of the linesmen was giving me a hard time because [on my] my penalties [my arm was only] up halfway. I told my partner [referee Tom Kowal], if you see me and it’s not a washout it’s actually a penalty. He put his arm up a couple time to help me out with that.”
Rehman worked through it, battling through the remaining 19 games on his regular season schedule.
Once Rehman finished up his junior hockey career in Red Deer, he was offered a spot to try out officiating. Rehman declined.
“[Officiating] was something that never interested me,” said Rehman. “I was awful to the referees, I took probably as many misconducts and game misconducts as anyone else.”
After a follow-up invitation to join the officials skating at the Sylvan Lake Hockey School, Rehman reconsidered and headed out on the ice.
“I had a blast. It was a lot of fun; just a great way to stay involved in the game. Obviously, you get to be out there with the players, so you’re still kind of involved. It’s a different aspect, but I had a blast doing it. I signed up that fall [as official]. They told me they were going to throw me into the water and it was going to be sink or swim, but by the end of my first year I was doing midget AAA and bantam AAA, some Junior B, and some senior AAA hockey.”
“I’m very fortunate and very thankful and grateful to those guys that gave me the opportunity. That’s the toughest thing that I see, especially in the big [hockey] centers like Calgary and Edmonton, is you do camps and these guys come up to you and they’re like, you know I’m 23 and I’m still working and trying to get into Bantam AAA. I feel their frustration [even though] I never lived it, but I can only imagine how difficult that would be. You’re already working five years and haven’t even worked bantam AAA. [After] two years of minor hockey, I was hired into the Western Hockey League, but I definitely felt their frustration.”
Though Rehman wears the armbands in the NHL as a referee, he started out working dual duty as both a linesman and a referee, something he recommends to those honing their craft.
“I did both as long as I could. I always tell that to young officials — Keep doing both, because you see different things, you get to understand the different aspects of officiating in terms of refereeing vs. lining. After my first year, they said you know what we’re going to push you as a referee and I got into do some Jr A. games. I remember my first two games in the Alberta Junior League, I had three line brawls between the two of them, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Man, am I in over my head?’ and I probably was. But I had great support from the guys I was working with on the ice, the linesmen, and also the guys in Red Deer who said we’re gonna keep pushing you, we’re gonna support you, and we know you’re going to make mistakes, it’s just a matter of learning from them and that’s what I did.”
Rehman credits his skating and his dedication to watching – and learning – the game as the key reasons he quickly progressed as an official.
“Obviously, skating is something that is one of my strong suits. Especially nowadays with the way the game is so fast, you have to be a good skater. If you want to get looked at [by the NHL], you have to be an excellent skater. I think the biggest thing for me was that I went and watched a lot of hockey games. It’s different. [As] a player, you watch for different things that players do, how teams break out, all those sorts of things. Now, as an official, it’s a different game. If I wasn’t working or if I didn’t have school, I was watching hockey games.”
Transitioning to the National Hockey League
“It’s been a great experience. It’s already been eight years. I remember when I first got hired and my first training camp. Paul Devorski, one of my favorite guys to work with, was my roommate and just a great guy. He had a couple of pranks for me. It was a lot of fun. We had a great week.”
“Just seeing the guys, Kerry Fraser, Brad Watson, especially the guys from the west because you kind of you’ve heard about them from other guys in the Western Hockey League and those are the guys you watch when you’re watching games in the National Hockey League and then you’re just now you’re amongst them – you’re a teammate.”
“One thing that I really take pride in is the brotherhood of officiating. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the National Hockey League, the Western Hockey League, the Ontario League, whatever it is. We’re a very tight group. Just to see how they bring you in and just support you and they want you to have success. It’s been cool.”
Rehman’s first game was between the Edmonton Oilers and Tampa Bay Lightning on January 22, 2008. He took the ice with referee Mick McGeough and linesmen Vaughan Rody and Jay Sharrers.
“When I first broke in to the National Hockey League I don’t think it really hit me . I didn’t know the significance of it, I was just going out there and I was refereeing hockey games. A couple years of years after that I sat back and, maybe a fault of my own, I sat back too much. It doesn’t matter if I’m working with [veterans] Brad Watson, Dan O’Halloran, or a guy like [second-year full-time referee] Graham Skilliter, they expect me to bring everything to the rink every night and they’ve got to do the same for me. I probably would be the first to admit that there’s probably a couple years where I maybe sat back too much and that cost me come the end of the year when I’m on the sidelines and the playoffs are going on.”
“You have to [work to the best of your ability.] If you’re not doing that, they’re going to find someone else to do it.”
Rehman had a quick ascension from the Western League to the ECHL, then AHL, and eventually to the NHL. As the skill and abilities of the players increase, those of the officials need to as well. Rehman was asked about the toughest transition to make.
“It’s got to be [going from] the American League to the National League. The Western League, they know and they understand that you’re going to make mistakes. Trust me, we want to be perfect every night. It’s not going to happen. You look at the players and they make mistakes. It’s no different from that side of the game. When you’re at the [NHL], you’re expected to make very little to zero mistakes. Whereas in junior hockey they say, ‘Hey they’re kids, they’re learning the game’ so that’s where you learn your craft. So you have that opportunity to have a little longer leash or you can make the odd mistake and you’re not going to feel the wrath. In the Western Hockey League and the American Hockey League there’s a little more room for error whereas at the National League, there’s zero room for error.”
“The National Hockey League is a performance-based industry. We have 33 referees. If you’re not in the top 20 come playoff time, you’re done for the season. The most difficult league to work is the [NHL]. I love it, I embrace it, and I feel that over the last five years when I’ve been full-time I’ve learned so much and I still have a lot to learn.”
Officiating is often a thankless profession. On a bad night, you get plenty of feedback. On a good night, none at all. There’s a lot that goes into the job, and a lot that the fans don’t see.
“It takes a different kind of person to do what we do. We’re all very passionate about, obviously, the game, first of all and there’s a lot of sacrifice involved and that’s what I don’t think a lot of people understand. They always say, ‘You have the best job in the world’ and we all feel we do, but our families, especially the wives, they go through a lot. They travel the kids around to school, to sporting events, to dance, whatever it is. They’re the real glue in what we do, and the support, and if you don’t have that it’s tough. We are a very tight group of guys and we enjoy seeing each other on the road. I also want to throw out a little props to the wives because they really make it easier on our guys.”
Chirping the Refs
There’s a great deal of talking that goes on during a game, some between players, some with coaches. Rehman talked about the chatter at ice level.
“There’s a reason they call [NHL players] professionals. They do their job, and sometimes they’ll yell and scream but, you know what, it’s the passion. As officials, we’ve got no problem with passion, it’s when they make it personal. That’s when we obviously have to step in.”
“I remember one time working a game with Paul Devorski and someone said something to him and he goes, ‘It’s father son night. I brought my boy to work. Leave him alone.’ So you get stuff like that. There’s lots of different things. We had a couple good jokes with him.”
“One of the biggest things I’ll remember was when Gretzky was coaching in Phoenix. I grew up a big Oilers fan, being from Red Deer. I remember one time he was yelling and screaming and he was totally wrong on a rule. I blasted him and I remember giving it to him pretty good. He was telling his side, I was telling my side. After I skated away I was like, ‘Oh man, I just told my childhood idol to go beat it.’ That was pretty crazy.”
Rehman’s memorable moments weren’t limited to just the National Hockey League. He’s also had his share of interesting situations in the minor leagues, including one Sunday afternoon in Providence.
“It was one of my first trips when I was under contract with the NHL, working games in the American League. It’s just a routine Sunday afternoon game, not much is going on. All of a sudden in the third period, halfway through, we’re in the end zone and we’re ready to [drop the puck] and I hear these whistles. The guy is just hammering on his whistle like four times and it kind of startled me. You know you’re ready to go, you’re focused, waiting for the puck drop and all of a sudden something else happens here. I look around thinking something big is happening and I look back and the one linseman’s reaching into his pocket. He’s trying to peek up at the clock and he’s scanning his 50/50 numbers to see if he won the 50/50. You get a little bit of everything in the American League, but those are some of my fondest memories, for sure.”
Two-Man vs. One
Though Rehman works in a two-referee system in the NHL, he came up through the WHL and AHL when there was just one referee working each game. He credits that system to helping further his development as an on-ice official.
“I think the one-man system is crucial for a referee to learn how to referee. In the two-man system you can get away with a lot more; you get a lot of guys who piggyback. I remember that in the Western League. In the American league, 90-percent [of the time] I was by myself. That’s where you learn to referee. The game is so fast now that it’s impossible if you want perfection, which we all do. You can’t work a game by yourself, it’s just way too quick. The guys are too quick, they move the puck so well, and everything’s just so structured. You definitely learn how to referee, you learn how to communicate because you’re going to miss things and you have to explain it to coaches, explain it to players and it’s not like you’re making excuses because at the end of the day, you’re accountable.”
“Sometimes you’re going to miss things, sometimes you’re not going to get a good look, someone’s going to skate in front of you or you’re not going to get a good sightline or you have a disconnect – that’s what we call it if you’re getting spun by a couple players, then you come out of this spin and all of a sudden a guy’s down and he’s leaking and you have no idea. Trust me, there’s no worse feeling than seeing someone go down injured and you’re not 100% sure what happened.”
While there’s been a great deal of debate on the expanded use of video review in the National Hockey League, Rehman’s in favor of any technological opporunities to make the right call.
“At the end of the day, we want to get it right. We want to have the right call made. If it’s from the ice or it’s from Toronto, that’s all I care about. I don’t care how we get to that point I just want to make sure that we made the right call and we’ve done what‘s best for the game.”
“We’ve talked about [expanding video reviews]. We obviously know it’s coming in and we’ve been discussing it now. There’s been plays where we’ve had over the past year or so where [we’ve thought], ‘Oh man, we wish we could’ve looked at that.’ Like I said, we just want to get it right.”
“The two toughest things for a referee are those quick high sticks. These sticks now are so light they just get up and now we’re starting to get guys that are stuntmen that are starting to snap their heads back a little more which makes it even more difficult for us. And the next one is the players around the crease. Everything’s around the crease now. That’s where [coaches] tell you to go, right? Goals are crucial in games and sometimes there’s a lot of traffic and you can be on the wrong side, you can be looking at the wrong thing, and it happens in a split second at the puck’s in the back of the net and you’re thinking, ‘Oh my… what just happened?’ I think the league is going in the right direction and I definitely support what’s going on. It’s not just the referees – everyone, we want to see what’s right.”
“If we have a play where we can go and get some help outside, if it’s Toronto, [or] if we can have something in the [penalty] box and look at it ourselves and at the end of the day we get the right call and the right call is made. I think it’s better for the game that way. [If] we have the technology to do it and we don’t take advantage of it, I think that puts a black eye on the game. Why [would we not] take advantage of [the technology]. The game has evolved, it’s come so far, so why would we not do the same?”
“There’s nothing worse than you go into the room after the game and you know you’ve left something out there and it’s maybe not 100% right. There’s times when I’ve been involved in a game where there’s a play that’s a controversial goal or whatever and it’s something that we in the past haven’t been able to look at. It’s difficult. It’s difficult to move on personally. Now you’ve got the teams yelling and screaming, saying we saw it. Let’s face it, a lot of these teams they’ve got iPads on their bench and they’ve got people in their ears talking to them from upstairs and they’ve got a look at it and we haven’t. I think that’s one of the toughest things, when a team says, ‘We’ve looked at it and we see it this way.’ And I haven’t had the luxury to look at it yet.”
“[The NHL Officials’] slogan last year was ‘In Real Time’ because that’s officiating. We know that, and we accept it, and maybe we’re a little crazy for that. We want it that way. That’s how we hone our craft. That’s how we see the game – in real time. There’s nothing more frustrating than you’re with the guys and you’re watching [a hockey game] somewhere on the road and [the announcers are] like ‘How did they miss that’ Well, yeah, after you’ve watched it from five different camera angles and you’ve slowed it down frame-by-frame, yeah, anybody can do that.”
“When I’m officiating, I don’t care who wins or loses, I want to make sure I protect the players and keep them safe and maintain the integrity of the hockey game m so If we can use this to help keep the game at the highest level and the integrity of the game at the highest, then why not?”
Last season, the NHL made minor changes to faceoff alignment and instituted a penalty for pushing the puck with your glove during a faceoff. Rehman talked about the motivation for and impact of that change.
“It’s tougher for me to comment because, if you ever watch me drop the puck, I might as well just throw it up as a jump-ball and get out of there. Guys will be like, ‘Hey, it wasn’t square!’ I drop the puck and I’m just happy it lands and it kind of stays where it’s supposed to.”
“Puck possession is such a big part of the game now and the guys they will do anything they can to win a faceoff. There’s lots of ways to cheat and [players are] always coming up with something new because that’s part of the game. That’s how you evolve. We, as the league, try to do something. When guys were dropping to their knees and using their hands , like LA did that year when they had Fraser and Stoll, that’s how they were winning all their faceoffs. We had to get rid of that because to make it more fair, but now they’re doing other things and I think that’s always going to happen. If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t trying, right? They’re going to do whatever they can to win the draw.”
Jarrett Stoll’s career faceoff win percentage was 55.8% coming into the 2014-15 season. After the NHL’s rule change on faceoffs, he dropped to 50.0%.
The rule change that has had the greatest impact on the game, in Rehman’s opinion, is Rule 48 which covers Illegal Checks to the Head.
“I think the biggest thing that has been great for the game is this head check [rule]. I know it’s a huge thing with minor hockey and I really believe it’s brought a little more respect back to the game. Obviously players know. You don’t see those big huge punishing hits like Scott Stevens coming across the middle because they’re not allowed to do it anymore and I think it’s good for the game. We don’t want to see players get hurt; we don’t want to see them out. This is how they make their living. If they’re on the shelf or they’re concussed…”
“From the fans’ point [of view], too, fans pay a lot of money to watch games and if [top players are injured], the league doesn’t want that. We want guys to be healthy and we want them to be playing and we want them to be kept safe. I think when they brought [the head checking rule] in, that’s been great for the game. I think it’s brought back respect for the players as well.”
Home Away From Home
For a guy who visits all 30 NHL cities and logs thousand of miles, the airports and hotels probably all blur together. Hitting the ice, though, is a different story. Rehman talked about his favorite arenas.
“Obviously [Madison Square Garden] just because of the history of the building. Since they’ve done the [renovations], it’s night and day literally. It’s really bright and the ice is awesome. I remember my first few years I was like, ‘How do they even skate? How can they even handle the puck? It’s jumping.’ I honestly think MSG [has] the best [ice] now. Its phenomenal what they’ve done there.”
“You’ll never beat the anthem in Chicago. I don’t care how many times you’ve heard it. I think that’s one of the coolest parts about our job is standing at center ice and you know it’s coming. The hairs on the back of your neck will just stand right up because it is amazing.”
“Probably one of my favorites, and I’ve done it now the last 2 years and I wish that every official got to experience it, is having Toronto in Montreal on a Saturday night. You know, the rivalry. It’s in the Bell Centre and the place is rocking and that’s probably one of my favorite rinks to work in too. I mean, all of the rinks [are great]. There’s different things for different reasons, but I’d probably say [my top three are] MSG, Chicago, and Montreal.”
Good Game, Ref
“A good night for us is when nobody knows we’re out there. When I go out, I don’t want to be one of the three stars. When I’ve had a good game, it’s when people leave the rink and they’re walking out and they have no idea who was reffing tonight and there’s nothing said about the officiating. For us, that’s what we strive to do each and every night when we step into the rink.”
The NHL Officials Association also does terrific charity work with their Zebras Care Foundation, which looks to provide underprivileged and sick children an opportunity to meet with the officials and to attend an NHL game.
“I’ve been fortunate to do some Zebras Care [events]. It’s such an awesome experience to be a part of. I remember seeing some kids that should never have to go through what they’re going through, but just to see the spirit and the fight in them — they honestly bring more to us than we can ever give to them.”
“Our group does a great job with it and it’s such a special thing. It’s very exciting when we get an email that says [tells us we’re] going to be a part of a Zebras Care. Our guys really look forward to it because we know usually its not a great circumstance for a kid who’s very sick but, like I said, what they bring to us is something I’ll always cherish.”
“The two things that Don Henderson told me when we were traveling – you’ve got two ears and one mouth for a reason. And just enjoy it, because it’s going to go by way too fast. It definitely has. It’s crazy that I’ve been under contract with the league for eight years already.”
Best of luck to Kyle as he enters his ninth season as an NHL referee.
Listen to the full interview over at Sportsnet 960.