Carter Sandlak had always dreamed about playing in the NHL. The ECHL veteran had hoped to follow in the footsteps of his father, Jim, who spent 11 seasons in the NHL suiting up for the Vancouver Canucks and Hartford Whalers. He always though that, like his dad, he’d make it as a player. After four seasons in the OHL, the undrafted Sandlak spent time in both the AHL (54 games) and ECHL (127 games), wrapping up the 2017-18 campaign with the ECHL’s Greenville Swamp Rabbits.
His dream is still alive, though instead of wearing a home or away jersey, he’s going for it as a member of the third team on the ice — the officiating crew. Sandlak may have changed course, but his goal remains the same: to make it to the NHL.
From the ECHL:
Hockey has been a part of Carter Sandlak’s life since a young age. His father, Jim, enjoyed a 549-game National Hockey League career over 11 seasons with Vancouver and Hartford before embarking on a front office career that now sees him in his 11th season as a scout with the Anaheim Ducks.
Carter followed in his dad’s footsteps and enjoyed a productive playing career of his own, spending five seasons in the Ontario Hockey League before moving on to the pro ranks. He spent the majority of his pro career in the ECHL, playing 127 games with Florida, Toledo and Greenville in addition to seeing action in 54 games with Charlotte of the American Hockey League.
But, after a conversation with former teammate Corey Syvret, Sandlak finds himself moving his career in a different direction. Entering the 2018-19 season, Sandlak will serve as a linesman in the ECHL and referee in the AHL.
“Corey finished his playing career two years ago and went into officiating, and really got me looking into it,” Sandlak said. “He said it’s a good lifestyle, and not as taxing as playing. I started to do some research, made a few phone calls and decided it was a good time to follow in his footsteps and enter the officiating realm.”
While Sandlak would have enjoyed playing for at least another few seasons, his body was beginning to tell him otherwise.
“My body and my well-being played a big part in me making the transition now,” he said. “Between the long seasons, travel and a couple of surgeries I’ve had, it was time to look for something else to do. Moving into officiating will allow me to stay in the game, and at the same time, still do something I enjoy.”
Having grown up with hockey being a part of his life, the transition to another aspect of the game should not be too difficult for Sandlak to adjust to.
“The most important thing is getting into the mindset you’re not playing anymore, and the game is no longer about you,” Sandlak said. “Having played for so long, I still have an eye for the game and hopefully will see things before they happen, which will be a big help moving into this position.”
Perhaps the biggest adjustment that Sandlak will face in his new role as a linesman is officiating games involving former teammates.
“I was talking to a couple of guys I played with in Charlotte a few years ago and told them that I’ll be seeing them in a few weeks. It’ll certainly be weird to see them on the other side of the coin.
“When I was playing, I was a big chirper and was always talking to the officials,” he added. “A fellow official was laughing me at the other day telling me that now I’ll see it from the other side when guys don’t like a call I made and start yapping at me.”
While officiating will help keep Sandlak in the sport he loves, there certainly are aspects of playing that he will miss.
“The camaraderie with my teammates is what I think I will miss the most,” he said. “I was always a big team guy so I’ll just miss being around the other guys, the long bus trips where you can just talk and hang out. That will be a big adjustment for me.”
In addition to Syvret and Sandlak, a number of former ECHL players have transitioned into officiating over the last several years, following the introduction of an officiating combine by NHL Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom in 2013.
“Personally, I think guys just want to stay in the game, whether it’s scouting, coaching or officiating,” Sandlak said. “Guys that have a good run playing but know their head isn’t in it anymore, it allows them to stay in the game. I think it says a lot about the hockey community that guys want to stay involved in the sport for as long as possible after their playing days are over.”
“Over the last few years a number of players have realized that if they aren’t going to make it to the NHL to play, they still have another avenue to pursue in getting there through officiating,” said ECHL Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations Joe Ernst.
“Carter, along with some of the others, are being given an opportunity to become an official and he is taking this just as serious as when they played through their commitment and dedication to hockey,” Ernst added. “Fitness and skating have now become a major aspect of what the NHL is looking for in up and coming officials. These former players are all good skaters and in great shape, so now it’s just a matter of teaching them the in’s and out’s of officiating.”
Like every year before in his life, Sandlak spent the summer working out and preparing for the season ahead. This time though, it was preparing to don the officiating stripes to begin the next phase of his career.
The journey continues for Carter Sandlak, though the path has changed. He may not be following in his father’s footsteps, but he still has a shot at the summit. All the best to Carter Sandlak in his officiating career.