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MANAGING THE OFF-SEASON

04/15/2014, 2:15pm EDT
By USA Hockey Officiating Program

Q & A with Officiating Education Program Director Matt Leaf

It seems like just yesterday that the 2013-14 hockey season started. Now, as we wrap up another successful year, many officials often ask “now what?”

Much like what we recommend to our players, Matt Leaf, USA Hockey’s director of the officiating education program, suggests stepping away from the ice in the offseason and preparing properly for next year.

USA Hockey: Before we get started on the offseason, can you give us a brief summary of the 2013-14 season?

Matt Leaf: Overall, it was a fairly successful year, though registrations of officials were down slightly for the third-straight year. Our officials faced some challenges this season, pertaining to rule changes, and they seem to have met those challenges. Those rule changes concerning boarding, charging and head contact were fairly significant in USA Hockey’s efforts to change the culture of the game and our officials played a leading role in the enforcement. It put the focus of body checking/body contact on separating the opponent from the puck and not for use as a punishment or intimidation tactic. The results were well received and the officials did a good job of enforcement, culminating with a highly successful national tournament series.

USA Hockey: So the regular season is officially over, where does an official begin with the offseason?

Matt Leaf: A good place to start is by taking some time off away from the game – especially those officials who were used to working five or more games every week. Both physically and mentally, those officials need some rest and a chance to be rejuvenated when they do get back on the ice. Trudging along and keeping up the same pace with spring and summer hockey will eventually catch up to every official and will create an atmosphere where officiating may not be as fun. And if you’re not having fun, that will be reflected in your performance on the ice.

USA Hockey: USA Hockey’s American Development Model has emphasized that hockey players should take some time away from the game and play other sports in the offseason to help develop additional athletic skills. Does this same approach hold true for officials?

Matt Leaf: In many regards, yes it does. Many officials are involved in officiating other sports that have a good crossover with hockey. Lacrosse is a great example of that. The basic principles of the game are similar and some officials find it to be a good transition sport to be involved in during the offseason. Others may umpire some baseball or softball, or just take some time off from officiating all together. Regardless, taking some time away from hockey will help refresh the mind and the body.

The other component of the ADM that I think definitely applies on the officiating side has to do with fueling the passion for ice hockey. Players and officials that take some time away from the game are more excited and passionate about starting up again the next season. Mentally, it can be a very good thing to miss something and then be excited when you get it back. Those who do tend to perform better as a result of being happy to be back on the ice.

USA Hockey: There is so much spring and summer hockey offered as rinks seek profitability. How easy is it for an official to stay away?

Matt Leaf: If you love the game, I am sure it’s not that easy at all. Obviously, these programs are looking for officials and it’s very tempting to step on the ice. Everyone’s situation may be a little different, so there is not a definitive answer. For the younger officials who didn’t get a lot of experience during the season, this is a good time to gain some of that experience and develop some of the skills necessary to be successful – as long as it is done in moderation. For the experienced veteran who worked a ton of games all season, maybe it’s best for them to back off a bit and commit to only a couple of games per week. They could even use this time to mentor and work with the younger officials. In either case, these offseason programs are all sold on the kids going out and having fun and maybe developing a few skills and this should be the same for the officials. If the official finds themselves fretting about having to go to the rink to work a couple of days on a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon, that would be a pretty good indicator that they need to step away and take some time off.

USA Hockey: So if they are not on the ice working games, what else can they be doing to prepare for the next season?

Matt Leaf: First and foremost, mental, physical and emotional rest is important. Every individual is different. Some can be refreshed in a couple of weeks, while others may take a couple of months. Once they are ready to get back in it, some rulebook and manual review will help the mental side of the game. It’s also important to take care of the physical aspect with a healthy lifestyle and fitness program. The high-level officials will certainly want to keep their cardiac fitness at a high level and may lift some weights, but they should do it within the framework of a well-rounded program that works the body core and enhances flexibility, agility and core strength.

The bottom line is officials need to use the offseason to emotionally and physically prepare themselves for a strong start to the season. On the mental side, that means restoring the enthusiasm and brushing up on the rulebook. On the physical side, it means being healthy and at an appropriate level of fitness.

USA Hockey: Finally, what changes should the officials look for or expect as they head into the 2014-15 season?

Matt Leaf: First, it is a non-rule change year, so the focus will be on a continuation of the Body Checking and Restraining Foul Standards of Play with strict enforcement of both. The one rule that does go into effect next season is the Rule 411 (Progressive Suspensions) which holds players accountable for committing multiple dangerous actions throughout the season that warrant major penalties.

Off the ice, one significant change that will take place involves our seminar and education programs. Starting next season, there will be an online education component to the seminar requirement for every registered official. Each official will be required to complete an online education course as part of the registration requirement. This online component will be in addition to the normal seminar program, although the seminars portion will be shorter in length. This new approach allows USA Hockey to take advantage of current technology to better provide educational resources to all of our officials with consistent content and messaging.

More information about the education requirements and other initiatives for the 2014-15 season will be announced in the coming months.

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