Legend In Stripes

What defines a legend?

It was the 2001-02 season, and the Wolverine fans, unhappy with the game’s officiating, began chanting, “We want Shegos! We want Shegos!”

Not unusual — except the game in question was a men’s basketball game. Matt Shegos’ younger sister, watching the game with a friend, turned to one of the vocal Michigan students and said, “You know he’s a hockey referee?”

Of course. The entire student section knew Matt Shegos.

For someone who neither plays nor coaches Division I college hockey, Matt Shegos is one of the most recognizable people associated with the game. Nearing the end of his 19th season as a CCHA official, Shegos is the one who left the ice and came back — and league commissioner Tom Anastos couldn’t be happier.

"Who new can come in and bring that experience into our staff? No one else can. … He’s worked more high level games than I can count. That’s irreplaceable. His leadership is very important."

— CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos, on Matt Shegos

“Experience, professionalism, and leadership,” says Anastos. “Those are the three things that Matt brings to the ice. If you go into a fourth, I would say quality.”

Shegos — pronounced SHE-guhs, not she-GOHSS, as is usually chanted — returned to on-ice officiating after a two-year hiatus during which he served as an off-ice supervisor for the CCHA. Shegos put the skates away to spend more time with his family. Now that his daughters are 13 and 15, he says, “They’re going through a stage right now where Dad is not the most important person. Drop me off and God forbid don’t kiss me in front of my friends.”

So with the blessing of his “understanding wife,” says Shegos, he returned to what he does best — calling the games.

“Who new can come in and bring that experience into our staff? No one else can,” says Anastos. “He’s worked more high level games than I can count. That’s irreplaceable. His leadership is very important.”

From the moment Anastos became commissioner in 1998, he says he knew that Matt Shegos, older brother of now-retired Duke Shegos, was more than just another referee. “He was almost the quasi-unofficial spokesperson for the group, which showed me a lot about how everyone looked up to him.

“When I came in one of the concerns I had was that we had Matt Shegos, Steve Piotrowski, and Duke Shegos. They were considered by coaching staffs pretty high, and after that [quality of officiating] could drop off.”

Given the length of time they’d served the league, Anastos feared that both the Shegos brothers and Piotrowski would soon retire, leaving the CCHA without experienced referees from whom a younger generation could learn.

“When [Matt] retired,” says Anastos, “I told [CCHA Director of Officials] Brian Hart to get him into a supervisory position to keep him close. He’s been very valuable from day one.”

For Shegos, hockey has been a life-long love. “I was — like most officials — a player in my youth. I wanted to play collegiately. I was small and fast and shifty, but wasn’t what they were interested in. I made an effort to walk on at the University of Michigan, and it didn’t get very far.”

It was while he was a student at Michigan that Shegos became an official. “I attended a tryout at the North American Junior League … and found out a student at Michigan put a call in to the head coach at that time and got me involved.

“At that time the linesmen were assigned by each institution. Each institution had its full-time linesmen. It was just the referees who were employed by the league.

“I was the guy in Ann Arbor, and Steve Piotrowski was the guy up in Ferris. We’re two of the oldest guys on the staff — ‘old’ from a hockey sense.”

After Shegos graduated in 1984 with a degree in engineering, he worked for General Motors for 10 years before leaving to go into sales. While some fans will go to their graves believing in the undisputed stupidity of referees everywhere, the CCHA officiating staff is well educated.

“One hundred percent of our staff graduated from college,” says Shegos. And while each official is a paid employee of the CCHA, Shegos adds, “Each one of us has an eight-to-five job, five days a week. We need to be able to leave the office in the car and put our game face on when we walk into a building.”

And, says Shegos, “Contrary to what people might believe, I get a bigger thrill out of a game that is absolutely clean, one where we [the officials] aren’t really needed.

“You tell the players before the game that they control the flow. We’re there to bring it back within the rules.”

So why did Shegos return to the ice after two years of supervising, and why does he stay with it?

“Number one, it takes just as much time to supervise as it does to referee, so if I’m going to be in the building for that duration, I’d rather be getting the workout,” he says.

“It’s challenging. It’s personally very, very demanding. Staying physically fit is a challenge. I am older than I look; every year the players get younger, stronger, faster, and bigger. It’s the personal satisfaction of being able to manage a game for three periods.”

And the job has other rewards. “One of the neat things about refereeing is that I can watch any National [Hockey] League team and say, ‘There’s a kid I refereed,'” says Shegos. “Every single team in the NHL has a player who played college hockey while I was refereeing.”

Shegos says that the proudest moment of his career was the NCAA championship game in 1991. “I was able to ref with my brother on the ice as a linesman. It was the first time that brothers were involved with officiating a national championship game.”

Another satisfying moment occurred during the Boston College-Michigan State game during the 2000 NCAA West Regional in Minneapolis. “I was backing up with no intention of having to work. I was in the stands. I watched the first game as a backup — the NCAA has a rule that you have to dress. You used to have to sit in the penalty box, but now you can sit in the stands.

“The first game had concluded [and] I started to eat. I was having hot cider because I was cold.

“The next thing I know they’re saying, ‘Would Matt Shegos please report to the officials’ room?’ I reported, and then I was walking onto the ice surface.”

The original referee suffered an injury during the game, and Shegos was no longer a backup.

“Thank God [Boston College head coach] Jerry York knew who I was and had no problem with me stepping onto the ice. In addition to that, Michigan State held a two-goal lead and was down five-on-three. Then I had to call a major penalty on Boston College, then a major penalty against Michigan State in overtime.

“For a referee to walk into that game, cold, with a five-on-three … it wasn’t an easy situation.”

Although Shegos claims that the circumstances that have allowed him to work four national championships were “fluky,” he says, “Any time you complete a season and work a championship game, it’s a satisfying season. Just as players compete, we compete to move up.”

There are a few things that Shegos would like hockey fans to know about the on-ice officials.

“None of us does this for our livelihood,” he says. “It truly is a labor of love. None of us is pulling for one particular team. We are as unbiased as unbiased can be.

“We truly want to be as neutral and as invisible as humanly possible, but we are human and we make mistakes.”

He’s heard that he shouldn’t be officiating Michigan games, because he’s a Michigan grad, and that Piotrowski shouldn’t be assigned to Ferris State because he’s a Bulldog alum. But Shegos says that kind of thinking is ridiculous. “What does that have to do with anything? Does that mean I have to send a Protestant to ref in Notre Dame?”

And don’t think that the officials don’t know you’re there, in the stands, doing what you do, saying what you say. “We as officials truly are amused by [some of] the fans. It’s comical to watch these so-called adults act like imbeciles. They are very entertaining.”

Oh, and he has some advice for CCHA fans as well:

“Come up with some new material.”