For the third team on the ice, every game is a big game

When you head to the rink to watch your favorite team on the ice versus a conference rival or a team from another league, there is always a third team that takes the ice first, although sadly, seldom to cheers.

However, it is tough to have much of a game without on-ice officials. The supervisors of officials responsible for assigning the crews to work games hosted in their respective leagues are: Gene Binda, CHA; Paul Stewart, ECAC Hockey; Dave Lezenski, Hockey East; and Greg Shepherd, WCHA.

Shepherd was kind enough to sit down with me and share some thoughts about officiating earlier this month. Although we are quick to blame referees for any misfortune that befalls our teams, Shepherd says that fans like you and I are one of the obstacles to ensuring that high-quality officials are always in the pipeline.

“Getting officials, it’s tough today because a lot of the younger ones don’t want to keep going because at the youth level, a lot of parents [and] coaches scream and yell, so you get a lot of kids quitting,” he said.

Despite that, fans that have followed the women’s game over the long term will have observed a positive trend.

“I think that from the beginning when we started the [WCHA] women’s league until now, I think the officiating has improved quite a bit,” Shepherd said.

Just as the players have improved their skating and knowledge of the game, the same is true of the people wearing the striped shirts compared to their predecessors from a decade or more ago. One is unlikely to see officials that struggle to keep up with the play or appear befuddled by certain game situations today.

“It’s an ongoing process,” Shepherd said. “I try to get around looking at high school games to see what’s out there as far as officials. I don’t want to get the old guys, per se. In high school, and I hate to say it because I was there, but they take the guys that are beyond their years in working the boys and move them to the women’s [games]. I don’t want to do that. I want to have good, young people that want to referee, that want to be there, and are not at the end of their career. Maybe some of them want to pursue the men’s [game] maybe later on. That might be an option for them. I like to get the young people, work with them, getting them prepared for what they see out here.”

What they see is a game that requires as much art as science to officiate well.

“I think our officials have a feel how to call the game,” he said. “People say, ‘Women’s hockey, there’s no checking.’ That’s true, but there’s contact. You see the North Dakota team playing Minnesota, you see the Wisconsin team playing Minnesota — they’re great games, but there is contact. The referees have to know how to call it.”

One way they can get a head start on what should or should not be called in the women’s game is to have played NCAA hockey. With increasing frequency, referees and those working the lines are veterans of the college game, including veteran officials like Katie Guay in the East and Leah Wrazidlo in the West.

“That’s what I like: people that have played the game at this level that know what the players are going through,” Shepherd said. “Because there are times out there [players] get upset; they say a few things. A referee just can’t jump and give them 10 minutes because they say something. I always say, if it’s just between you two, you go up to them, you say, ‘Nineteen, no more. Next time, you’re going to be sitting in that box for 10. I don’t talk to you like that, you don’t talk to me like that.’ And move on. Just don’t jump at it, have a feel. And I think that’s the biggest thing that I think you can see that people that have played the game, especially at this level, they have a feel for what is going on out there. I think that’s important.”

As the proficiency of the officials improves, the lives of their supervisors gets easier.

“What I want is not to have a coach call me after the game ranting and raving about the officials, bad calls or non-calls,” Shepherd said. “Like I tell the referees, and I talk to them before every game, is I want them to make the calls that are there; don’t make anything up.”

The conventional thinking is that referees have to call a lot of penalties to maintain control of the game. According to Shepherd, that isn’t necessarily the case, and he tries to instill a different mindset in his new charges.

“They see somebody go down, or they see a little bump, a lot of them like to throw their arms up,” he said. “I say don’t get involved unless you have to. Coaches don’t like it, players don’t like it. Just because you call penalties doesn’t mean the roughness or whatever is going to stop out there. Usually, if you call too many and they’re not deserved, people get worse.”

Another challenge facing officials is justifying their calls and non-calls to the coaches.

“I don’t mind talking to coaches,” Shepherd said. “I don’t want it every penalty or every play. Usually I tell them, ‘Minor penalties I don’t want you talking to the captains or the coaches.’ Because you know what, you’re not going to change your mind. A major penalty or a reviewed goal, I don’t mind you going over and explaining it to them. But every trip or every hook, you do not have to explain. There are some coaches that want an explanation on everything. I tell the referees, don’t do it.”

Obviously, some coaches in the game can be difficult to ignore.

“If the coach is ranting or raving and getting off, you skate over and say, ‘Coach, no more. The next time, I’m going to have to give you a bench. Keep it down.’ And move on.”

In both the men’s and women’s game there are coaches that are experts at working the officials. Shepherd recalls Boston University’s Jack Parker as being one that required extra tact.

“When I refereed, I went out East a few times and he would push you to the limits until you either told him to be quiet or you [penalized] him. Once you did that, it was over. He wouldn’t say another word. But he’d take you to the limit. And that’s what some of our coaches do. Some sit back, watch the game, and when they step forward, then you go, ‘Oh-oh, what happened?’ Like Mark Johnson or even Brad Frost or [Steve Sertich] from Bemidji. When they step forward, you know maybe something happened, because they’re not screamers. But there are some coaches that yell all the time, and referees just kind of turn them off.”

Shepherd’s philosophy for scheduling games means that all of the referees will eventually be exposed to all of the coaches and teams, rather than trying to assign the top officials to games involving top teams.

“To me, they’re all big series,” he said. “I mean that truthfully. No matter who is playing, to that team, to those players, it’s a big series. So what I try to do is spread out maybe the top-rated officials so they see everybody. I do the same on the women, that everybody that I have can work a Minnesota/Wisconsin, a Minnesota/North Dakota, a Minnesota-Duluth game. Those are, per se, the bigger games, but to me, Bemidji/Mankato — great game. Two evenly-matched teams, up and down the ice, great game.”

The officials are evaluated throughout the season by the coaches and the supervisors, and that plays into which referees are assigned to work the biggest games, such as conference championships and NCAA tournament games.

Another piece of the supervisor’s job is determining if additional league action is needed in the event that a player commits a serious infraction in a game. A supervisor reviews game tapes and consults with the commissioner of his women’s league, and if the offense took place in a game refereed by another conference, the supervisor of officials from that league is involved as well. The review process is different for the NCAA tournament.

“It’s handled by the NCAA,” Shepherd said. “They handle their own when it gets to their tournament. Then we’re out of it. That’s their baby; they take care of that.”

The leagues sometimes have to react to rule changes instituted by the NCAA. One example over the summer came when the NCAA modified the rule regarding goal judges such that the leagues can determine whether or not to use them. For now, the WCHA is still using goal judges.

“What we did after the NCAA came up with that, that you could no longer use goal judges, we talked to all the coaches and told them the rule and said that if you want to go away from them, we don’t have a problem with that,” Shepherd said.

The alternative would be to use a system similar to the NHL where someone sitting in the press box or another location with a good view of the ice presses a button to turn on the goal light when a referee indicates a goal.

“We don’t want to go away from the light,” Shepherd said. “If you don’t have goal judges, you have to have that. I think what you’re going to see in the upcoming years is no goal judges at all, they’ll put somebody in the press box, and the red light will come on when the referee points.”

There’s another change that Shepherd would like to see at all levels involving coaches and fans, especially for youth hockey.

“Leave the officials alone,” he said. “Especially the young ones. I see a lot of youth games, because I got eight grandkids and seven are playing. A lot of youth games I kind of stand by myself and the parents and the coaches scream at the officials, and you’ve got young people trying to go out and do their best. Understand what they’re going through, give them a break, and just let them do their job. Some of them are brand new, they’re trying to start, and they’re doing their best they can. It doesn’t do anybody any good for you as a parent to go out and yell at the referees, because it’s not going to change anything. Be supportive.”

In the long term, that may benefit the game if quality officials decide to stay with the game rather than deciding that it isn’t worth the abuse.

“Not all our calls are perfect; I’ll be the first one to say that,” Shepherd said. “We make mistakes. But we don’t want to make mistakes. The game is so fast that it’s tough. We’re out there doing our best, and so are those young people. So give them a break; let them do it.”

As for the game itself, Shepherd is already a fan.

“This women’s game is one of the best games in town,” he said. “They skate, play the game hard, and I wish more people would come out and watch them, because this is really entertaining.”