ST. PAUL, Minn. — It’s no accident when a team gets to the national championship game. That’s as much true for a team of officials — in this case Hockey East referees Tim Benedetto and Jeff Bunyon and linesmen Chris Aughe and Bob Bernard — as it is for a team of players.
Officials can’t just show up on the first Friday of the season and — voila — the game proceeds like clockwork.
“Just like the players, we’re training all year long,” Bunyon said after the crew worked the title game between Minnesota-Duluth and Michigan. “We’ll put the skates away tonight, but all summer long we’ll work out, run, and stretch, and get ready for the season.
“We’ll do a few games and skate casually over the summer, then once August heats up, really put it in full gear and get ready at a training camp for the whole crew. We approach it just like the teams do. We strive to be here just like them.”
All officials are subject to an ongoing evaluation process that extends through the entire season. They have to excel throughout that process to get to any title games, whether league or national.
“They say you’re only as good as your last call,” Benedetto said. “They don’t remember you for the game itself; they remember you for your last call, whether it was good or bad.
“That’s what we strive toward: Not to be perfect, but to get the call right.”
Since perfection isn’t possible, an official has to learn how to handle the inevitable potholes in the road to the Frozen Four.
“I learned a long time ago that we’re not perfect,” Bernard said. “You might have a bad period or make a tough call. You have to put it behind you and just stay positive and work hard.
“That’s the key. If you work hard, skate hard, and get yourself in good position, then good things will happen.”
Aughe added, “With the criticism, you can use it as a positive and learn from it. Hopefully, you don’t make the same mistake twice and build on it.”
Prior to this year, Hockey East teams had advanced to the national championship game in 13 of the last 14 years. With the NCAA prohibiting officials from working games involving their league’s teams, Hockey East referees and linesmen haven’t been allowed to work almost all recent title games, no matter how high their level of expertise.
In the all-WCHA Frozen Four of 2005, CCHA officials were chosen. Benedetto had already been sidelined with knee surgery, but the others saw their hopes dashed.
“There’s disappointment when you don’t get selected, but everyone’s working hard,” Bunyon said. “There are a lot of great officials across the country. All you can do is control what’s within your circle.
“You work hard and you do your job. If the call comes, fantastic; if not, you truly wish the guys who are doing the game great luck. At some point, hopefully you’ll get your shot.”
For this crew, that shot came in this year’s title game. Emotions ran high when they learned of the assignment.
“I was elated,” Benedetto said. “It’s been a long time. I was a backup in ’95. When you’re a backup, you don’t want anyone to get hurt, but unfortunately someone got hurt and I was inserted into that game.
“To do the national championship game is the pinnacle. It’s what you want to do. When I found out, I was ecstatic.”
As was the rest of the crew. That excitement carried over into lacing up the skates and stepping on the ice.
“Obviously, you’re nervous, but it’s a good nervous,” Aughe said. “Once the game starts and the puck goes down, you try to keep it in perspective. It’s another game.
“You don’t want to get too excited and too amped up, but you realize that all the officials that aren’t working are watching you. It’s really special. It’s the pinnacle of a 10- or 11-year process.”
Ideally, the game would go smoothly without any controversy, as had been the case in the Michigan-North Dakota semifinal for the Hockey East crew of referees Kevin Shea and Scott Hansen along with Aughe and Bernard.
Not this time.
The game wasn’t even five minutes old before the first tough call — a waved-off, after-the-whistle goal — required video review.
“Something always pops up,” Benedetto said. “You usually have a little hiccup, a little anxiety attack, when something like that happens, but it’s old school. We go though it all year. Whether it’s five minutes into the game or a period and a half into the game, it works itself out.”
A raft of penalties drew the ire of fans, and by game’s end, Michigan coach Red Berenson, whose Wolverines came down on the wrong side of a 9-4 penalty differential. Arguably, the Bulldogs’ offensive pressure forced that disparity, but that wasn’t how Berenson saw it.
“I think penalties had a big part in the whole game,” he said. “Just too many penalties. Were they good penalties? I can’t tell you what I really think. I mean, you can’t talk about refereeing and penalties, but when one team gets nine and the other four, it doesn’t add up.”
Nonetheless, Michigan and Duluth remained tied after regulation, conjuring memories of the title game nine years ago in this same building. An overtime penalty in 2002 resulted in a Minnesota power-play goal and national championship.
An officiating crew can be forgiven if it hopes to avoid the controversy of putting either team on an overtime power play, but it also knows there may be calls that have to get made.
“We’re all on the same page,” Bunyon said. “We just want the game to come to us. Work hard, get to the net, be there for any potential scoring opportunities, and just officiate the game and hope everything goes smooth.
“Work hard is the key. Stay focused and see it right through to the end, because you know how important it is to everybody.”
This year, there were no overtime penalties to call. Kyle Schmidt scored the game-winner 3:22 in on a clean play.
Benedetto pointed to a job well done.
“I’m excited and satisfied for the whole crew,” he said. “I thought we did a great job and I’m looking forward to the next one.
“That’s how I look at it. This one is behind us now. Now we just need to work hard and try to get here again.”
And root against Hockey East teams?
A chorus of the four officials rang out arguing to the contrary.
“No, we never do that,” Benedetto said. “We never root against Hockey East schools.”
Bunyon added, “Make sure that’s in bold.”