After watching his dad suit up with the Broad Street Bullies, Landon Bathe dreamed of one day making it to the NHL. He never planned on doing it as an official.
Initially, Bathe looked to follow in his father’s footsteps. Frank Bathe played 224 games and piled up 542 penalty minutes over the course of eight seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings.
The younger Bathe worked hard to get his shot. He battled his way up from the Atlantic Coast Hockey League, earning an AHL deal with the Milwaukee Admirals. He split time between the Admirals and the ECHL’s Toledo Storm.
“He’s got a great work ethic,” Storm head coach Steve Harrison said of Bathe. “Where it takes him is up to him.”
That hard work paid off, as Bathe signed an NHL deal with the Phoenix Coyotes after a strong showing during a 2004 rookie tournament. The following year, while playing with the AHL’s Stockton Thunder, Bathe suffered a significant knee injury that ended his season – and his playing career.
“I got hurt and it was my last year under contract with the Coyotes,” Bathe told Scouting the Refs. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, either keep playing or do something else with my life. I wanted to start a family and my wife needed to work so I decided to give up [playing hockey].”
Bathe thought his hockey days were over until he learned of another way to stay on the ice.
Many referees and linesmen work their way up the officiating ladder, starting in stripes at a young age. The NHL has taken an active interest in looking for those who’ve taken an alternate path, including former players who’ve never officiated a game. The NHL’s Exposure Combine looks to recruit former players and introduce them to the possibility of continuing their hockey careers as officials.
For Bathe, that introduction came from a fellow Mainer – NHL referee Wes McCauley.
“It never crossed my mind,” said Bathe. “Wes McCauley actually sat me down and told me all about refereeing. He talked about how he used to play and how he became a ref. I thought it sounded good so I figured I’d give it a shot. My wife could start her career and I could move on to something else. You’re still part of the game. You’re still out there. The game needs officials”
Landon was sold on the idea. So was his father.
“He was all for it,” said Bathe. “He came with me to lunch with Wes and he thought it was a great idea.”
Even some of Bathe’s former teammates were glad – though surprised – to hear of the change.
“A lot of them were actually happy that I did that. Some wished they did the same thing. Once they stopped playing [professionally], there’s really nothing left. There’s just men’s league. So they miss the game, where I’m still a part of it. They’re watching it from the stands. I’m watching it from the ice and getting a good workout when I’m out there.”
Of course, it’s not an easy transition to go from playing the game to officiating it. The fitness level may be there, but some of the nuances – reading the plays, how you watch the game, positioning – those change dramatically.
“My first game was a junior A game out in the Midwest for the USHL,” Bathe said. “I thought it would be easy since I’d been playing the game my whole life. When I got on the ice for my first game I had no idea what was going on. It was so fast! I was like, ‘Did that even happen?’ I had a lot more respect for the refs after my first game.”
The officials may have earned Bathe’s respect, but he’d also earned theirs. Despite being an officiating greenhorn, the rest of the crew supported Bathe in his new role.
“They helped me out big time. Showed me the ropes, showed me what to do. They were just like my friends that I played with on a hockey team, there’s just less of us – 3 or 4 refs in a game. It was the same camaraderie as you’d have on a team.”
Bathe spent his first season as an official working games in the NAHL and USHL. The next year, he took the ice in the AHL, SPHL, and Central League, before moving on to the Quebec League. Bathe spent the next three seasons working games in the AHL and the ECAC, where he officiated under the watchful eye of retired NHL referee Paul Stewart, the ECAC director of officiating.
“Landon was more than a capable official, he was dependable, an excellent skater and a chip off the old block from his dad who was a tough guy,” Stewart told Scouting the Refs. “I was sorry to lose Landon’s services and would take him back if he was able to come back.”
Of course, working different leagues means learning and understanding different rulebooks, juggling schedules, and handling vastly different levels of play.
“Honestly, this might sound weird but, it was harder to ref college games than AHL games. In the AHL, it’s pretty close to the NHL; they’re very smart players. You know what’s going to happen before it happens. They very rarely make mistakes. College, these guys aren’t paid yet, so they’re going a hundred miles-per-hour. There’s mistake after mistake. I didn’t know what was going to happen next. You have no idea. It’s stop-start-stop-start. It was crazy, but I enjoyed it — I enjoyed every minute of it — it’s just a different game. Once you move up to the AHL, I think it’s easier to ref. You can see it better once you get used to the speed.”
Bathe’s working exclusively in the AHL now, which lets him focus on officiating players at a very high level and puts him on the ice with top-level officials also looking for their shot in the NHL. It also means that he can avoid one of the toughest parts of being an official — the travel.
“When I first started, traveling was the hardest part. I was all over the Midwest and all over the place. You’re not really with a team. You could be by yourself for a week or two, just meeting up with the other guys at the game. That gets hard on you. Luckily, as a linesman, the AHL doesn’t travel you at all, really. The refs in the AHL they do travel, they travel a lot.”
While the travel might be a painful experience for the officials, the most painful parts for players are likely the fights. Bathe, like his father, never shied away from dropping the gloves.
“I love fighting; I didn’t mind it at all,” said Bathe. “Nobody wants to go out and get hit in the face. It hurts. Nobody wants to go out and lose a fight. But I still think you need to be out there or you’d have a lot of guys spearing people, taking cheap shots, knee-on-knee hits, [and] hits from behind. I think those are far worse than fighting. I think fighting helps police the game and takes care of those situations before they happen.”
As an official, though, Bathe is tasked with making the call to let them go or to break it up.
“If the game’s real intense and the teams are going at it and someone wants to fight, I’ll let them fight. Get that first fight out of the way and hopefully that calms the game down and we can play on from there.”
Being a former fighter gives Bathe an advantage when it comes to what to look out for – and who to watch. Before each game, he scans the lineups to see which players may require some extra attention.
“I actually used to do that when I played, too. I’d look through [the stats] and see who’s a fighter, who has the most penalty minutes, who to keep an eye on. Now I do the same thing as a ref so I have a couple guys in the back of my mind. Between whistles, I’ll keep an eye on them and make sure nothing happens.”
And when it does?
“I don’t like to see any cheap shots. I just want to keep everything fair. If a guy’s outmatched, I’ll try to jump in and break it up before it happens.”
His fighting background isn’t the only skill that translates to officiating. Bathe leverages his skills and habits from many years as a player to his advantage in the stripes.
“Players – I know how they talk. I know how they think I know what they do. I feel like they have a good feel for the game of when to let things go, when to call things, game flow. That’s something you just know, feel, you kind of just know. It’s an instinctual thing.”
“I enjoy putting effort into it and giving it my all. As a player, it’s not fair to your teammates to go out there and half-ass it, and as a ref, it’s not fair to the other officials, fans, or the players of the game if you go out and half ass it. That’s been my thing my whole life, just work hard and good things come.”
And they have. Bathe has steadily moved up in his career, bringing him ever closer to realizing his goal.
“Everyone who’s in the NHL, they never quit, they never gave up. I never considered myself as giving up or quitting [by becoming an official] I think I retired just a little earlier than I’d have liked to.”
Now, Landon Bathe’s second career might just get him to level he’s always dreamed of.
“My original intention when I first started in hockey was to make it to the NHL. My dream was to make it there. I didn’t care how – playing, coaching, refereeing – I just want to make it up there. It’s something I’ve done my whole life. I’d be a third-generation. My grandfather played, my dad played, I played. I just love the game that much; it’s just all I want to do.”
Bathe has one family member currently working in the NHL. His sister, Carrlyn, is an arena host with the Los Angeles Kings.
“That would be my dream game [to officiate a Kings game]. That’d be pretty neat. Out of everyone in the whole family, she’s the one that’s up there in the NHL, and she was there for two Stanley Cups which is crazy. It’s amazing.”
With all the hard work he’s put in, Bathe is ready for that shot to join his sister in the National Hockey League.
“The NHL is where I want to be, but if not I’d still do what I’m doing now. I just love being a part of the game.”