Men in stripes could get Hockey East into title game

Hockey East? Hello? Aren’t Michigan and Minnesota-Duluth playing in the championship game?

Yes, yes, and yes.

The University of Michigan Wolverines defeated the University of North Dakota 2-0 (EN) in the second semi-final of the 2011 Frozen Four at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Melissa Wade)
Referee Kevin Shea and linesman Chris Aughe chat during a break in the Michigan-North Dakota semifinal game (photo: Melissa Wade).

Hockey East, however, stands an excellent chance of getting into that game in a manner not seen in the last 14 years. Since 1996, the league’s teams have competed in the title tilt every year but 2005. As a result, its referees and linesmen have been, for the most part, prohibited from calling their game’s biggest event.

“It’s the yin and the yang,” says Brendan Sheehy, who served as Hockey East supervisor of officials from 1994 through 2006. “If your teams are here and they’re using neutral officials, your [guys] are out.

“Hockey East has been very fortunate to have a lot of teams here over the past few years. [Their absence this year] gives Hockey East officials a chance to work.

“So it’s the yin and the yang. We have no teams here, but we have two official crews.”

Fans who love to scream at the zebras might be tempted to shrug and say, “Poor babies,” but that would be unfair. Referees and linesmen are competitive in their own way, striving for much the same goals that teams seek to reach. Hockey East’s ongoing success has cost those officials in the wallet, but even more importantly in the chance at summiting the Mount Everest of their profession.

“That’s what you strive for from the beginning of the season,” says Frank Cole, the NCAA national coordinator of men’s ice hockey officiating as well as the Hockey East referee in both the 1995 and 1996 title contests. “When you go to the training camp and work the offseason and drop the first puck, you want to work your league championships just like the teams and you want to work the NCAA tournament. To get to that championship game is every official’s ultimate goal.”

It’s disappointing to be denied that opportunity due to no lack of merit on your own behalf.

“Absolutely, they get frustrated,” says Sheehy. “Everyone wants to do the championship game. It’s just the way the stars have lined up.”

Which is not to say that the referees and linesmen have been whining or throwing temper tantrums while the likes of Boston College, Boston University, Maine and New Hampshire have advanced.

“Officials are pretty loyal soldiers,” says current Hockey East supervisor of officials Richard DeCaprio, who took over for the retired Sheehy five years ago. “They don’t complain that much. They’d like to do the championship game, but they don’t say anything about whoever is doing it.”

The situation does, however, put officials into the proverbial mother-in-law driving the Cadillac off the cliff rooting dilemma.

“They want to work the championship game, so when they get to the end of the season they almost have to root against their [conference’s] teams,” says Cole.

Last year was actually one of the few recent times when Hockey East officials have gotten to take the ice for at least a national semifinal game. The NCAA looks at all factors when deciding which crews to bring to the dance. If top-notch local officials are available — such as would be the case for those from the WCHA this year had not North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth gotten this far — they become prime targets.

“We look at the combinations of teams and what the combinations can be moving forward,” says Cole. “For instance, [two years ago] Vermont was playing BU in the semifinals so one of those teams was going to advance to the finals. It didn’t make any sense to bring Hockey East officials because the only game they would have been allowed to do was one of the semis.”

There have been championship game opportunities since 1996, but they’ve been few and far between. In the all-WCHA Frozen Four of 2005, the CCHA crew of Steve Piotrowski and Matt Shegos got the nod. In 1999, New Hampshire and Maine, both Hockey East teams, met in the finals, but by that time the NCAA committee that oversees officiating had decided on neutral conference officials (unlike in 1995 when Cole refereed the BU-Maine title game).

“The committee takes input from all of the different factions in college hockey,” says Cole. “Basically, we want the best situations for the teams and student-athletes that are participating. It’s changed at different times.

“In ’99, the decision was to use neutral crews. In 2000, we used split crews — we used a referee from one conference and linesmen from another conference.”

The experimentation continued to its most extreme point in 2001.

“The committee took a different approach,” says Cole. “They said, ‘We want to use the best officials regardless of the conference affiliation.’ So Steve Piotrowski worked as well as Mike Schmitt from the WCHA. Schmitt worked the championship game between North Dakota and Boston College.

“The games went fine, but some of the feedback was that there was maybe some uneasiness in some areas, so the committee went back to the neutral idea and that’s been the criteria ever since. It’s worked out quite well.”

Unless your name is Tim Benedetto, Jeff Bunyon,
Kevin Shea, or Scott Hansen. Those four Hockey East referees as well as linesmen Chris Aughe and Bob Bernard are the league’s representatives at this Frozen Four, looking to finally scale the pinnacle of their profession.

ECAC officials Chip McDonald and Peter Feola refereed the semifinal contest between Notre Dame and Minnesota-Duluth, while Shea and Hansen followed suit for North Dakota-Michigan.

Either of those two crews could be assigned the title game, or it could go to Benedetto and Bunyon.

“We’ve had years where a crew will work a semifinal and then work the final,” says Cole, refusing to tip his hand. “We’ve had years where three crews come in and each one works a game.”

One might guess that it’ll be Bunyon and Benedetto since those two refereed the Beanpot and Hockey East championship games and thus would arguably be considered Hockey East’s top crew. But no one’s saying.

The names will be announced to both teams and the public 90 minutes before game time.

If you’re a Hockey East fan, it might be time to actually cheer for one of the guys you’ve hollered at in the past and hope they get the shot they’ve been waiting for.