From refereeing one of college hockey’s most intense rivalries to national championship games and IIHF World Junior Championships, Mike Schmitt’s resume features some moments he knows his work was watched more closely than others.
There’s one thing that really helps him prepare for those games.
“I’m a big believer in visualizing,” Schmitt said. “I would always do that. I knew I would be going into this environment that’s packed and rowdy, and you visualize it so when you get in there it’s like you’ve already been there, and it really does work.”
Schmitt is now helping groom younger referees by getting involved in his local community in Minot, North Dakota. He also serves supervisor of officials for the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
“In Minot, we have such a good relationship with our youth hockey program,” Schmitt said. “We had our state 12U tournament here last year, so what they did was on Saturday night, they gave us $300 to take the officials out for wings and beer. They’re just so good to us.”
Schmitt chatted with USA Hockey about how he got involved with refereeing, what he’s learned, and embracing the “zebra” moniker in more ways than one.
USA Hockey: So growing up, what was your relationship with hockey like?
Mike Schmitt: Hockey started a little later here in the early-to-mid 1970s. I started in about fifth or sixth grade. I played typical youth hockey in Minot. Played high school hockey. Then I went and played junior hockey over at the junior college program at Minnesota. I played two years there, and that was it. Then I went to Moorhead State (now Minnesota State University Moorhead), and graduated with my criminal justice degree, and that was it for my playing does.
USA Hockey: How did you become an official?
Schmitt: When I got back to Minot in 1984 after I graduated, we had a minor league team. Some of the guys that used to ref me when I was in high school, they knew I was back and said, ‘Hey, do you want to ref out here?’ I had no clue about officiating. I didn’t have any real formal training. I think I showed up at my first game wearing basketball referee pants. There were a bunch of men playing. There were two or three fights a period. That’s how I got into that stuff, but then I got certified.
USA Hockey: Was that a tough starting point? Going from no experience and not knowing the job to managing a bunch of grown men who wanted to fight?
Schmitt: You’re right, I had no clue what was going on. This league had the old center-line (or two-line) pass and I never played with that, and I didn’t have a clue what it was. But I was out of college, 22 years old, and in my high school days, let’s put it this way: my kids give me crap because I’m still one of the top two leaders in penalties for our high school. I was kind of a goofball. I kind of enjoyed the fighting, and breaking guys up. It was kind of fun to get in there. But yeah, it was definitely a learning experience to say the least.
USA Hockey: How does it change your mentality when the stakes are higher?
Schmitt: It’s funny you should ask that, because I have NCHC camp next week. This is one of the things that we’re going to do with the referees next week. We think last year our staff kind of had a, not a bad year, but we had some mental breakdowns so to speak that we should have been better at. When I got ready for the games, mentally, I wouldn’t get ready for a Friday night North Dakota-Minnesota game on Friday. I was thinking about it when I got it on the schedule the week before. But when you get up to the higher level games, and I’ve always said this to people, really those games are the easiest games I’ve done. There’s pressure on you, don’t get me wrong, but those guys are out there to play. A guy doesn’t want to take a stupid five-minute major and put his team in jeopardy, so really you’re out there managing the game.
USA Hockey: Officials seem like such a tightknit community. What is it about the job that makes you so close?
Schmitt: It kind of goes down to that we rely on each other and we’re a team. Just like the teams are a team, in a sense, we’re our own team out there on the ice. We’re the only ones who are going to say we did a good job or congratulate us afterwards because not everyone is always happy with us. Some of my best friends in life I met officiating. We’re our own team and our own support. If we have a crappy game, we know it, and those are the guys that are going to back us up, but be honest with each other. I kind of relate it to my oldest son. He’s a linesman with the NCHC, and he’s a cop, and it’s kind of the same mentality as cops. Nobody wants to see a cop in their rearview mirror, and nobody wants to see the referee’s arm go up. It’s close-knit because they understand what you’re going through.
USA Hockey: Any advice for your younger self or new officials
Schmitt: Be humble and admit your mistakes. There are so many officials that have the mentality that, ‘I’m right, I’m always right, and I’m never wrong.’ They have that air to them. I remember the late Jeff Sauer, a great, great hockey person. I remember one game, I don’t know what happened, I was looking at the play and a guy definitely slashed a Wisconsin guy. There’s no doubt in my mind it was a slash and my arm didn’t go up. And I don’t know why it didn’t go up, but it didn’t go up. He’s screaming, yelling at me, so the next TV timeout I go over to him and I said, ‘Jeff: I missed it. I blew it.’ He just looked and goes, ‘All right.’ Now you don’t want to do that 20 times per game, but my biggest thing is just admit you’re wrong, be approachable and humble.
USA Hockey: What’s the deal with the zebra picture?
Schmitt: In Minot, we have such a good relationship with our youth hockey program. They pay for all of our kids that are college-and-under that officiate. Once you work your first game, they pay for your registration. They just help us a lot. Two years ago, a guy from the park district – we have a very nice zoo here in town – said, ‘Hey, the zebra exhibit is up for a sponsorship.’ It costs $500 a year and he asked, ‘Would the Minot hockey officials like to do it?’ This is the second year we did it. We sent an email out to all the guys and it was no problem. We anted up the money to sponsor it and I said, ‘Hey, why don’t we get a photo by it with the zebra?’ The park district let us in after hours, and we tried to get the zebra to look the best we could. We’re going to give that picture to the park district. It’s kind of a small thing that hopefully other local associations will say, ‘Hey, even though this is $500,’ it’s not very much but go out there and do things in your community.
Tag(s): Stripes Newsletter