From the outside, it may seem like Ken Warkentin had a pretty set life, so why would he want to become a hockey referee?
Warkentin, 58, is a highly-respected, well-known track announcer at the Meadowlands horse racing track in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Additionally, Warkentin regularly appears on TV horse racing broadcasts, and also engages in a thriving voiceover business on the side.
He also happens to love hockey.
Warkentin has played the game his whole life and still plays in an adult league in Hackensack. But last August, looking for a new challenge, Warkentin took the additional step of becoming a certified USA Hockey referee. Four months into his first season, he is happy with how it has gone.
“It was the right decision,” said Warkentin, who has called play-by-play for horse racing on ESPN, NBC and CBS broadcasts, in addition to his track announcer duties for over 27 years at the Meadowlands and Freehold Raceway in New Jersey. “Now I’m over 20 games in and I’m only allowed to do 8U and 10U and adult games. They limit you, but so far it’s been great. I’ve worked with a lot of experienced referees. They usually pair you. For the most part, it’s been a real fun, positive experience.”
He is still learning a lot about the craft of refereeing, often picking the brain of his usually more-experienced partner officials for tidbits of helpful information.
“It’s fun, you learn as you go, and sometimes I look at some of the higher levels,” said Warkentin, who grew up in a hockey household in Toronto. “We were doing house league 10U, it’s not that difficult to do, and sometimes, I’ll stick around and watch some of the higher levels and think, ‘Wow, I don’t know if I could handle that.’ But I’m a good skater, and I’m in pretty good shape. I’m a professional at what I do in my other endeavors and I give them 100 percent, I do my best.
“And the USA Hockey program is great. The way they prepare you, set you up. It’s like anything else, you’re going to get better with experience, and how much you apply yourself.”
Warkentin spends a lot of time studying the rulebook and watching NHL referees to see how they handle certain situations. From there, it’s a lot of practice and applying what he’s learned on the ice. Warkentin points out that he’s still learning to be more decisive when he sees a possible penalty.
“I’m just paying attention to infractions, that’s the biggest thing for me,” he said. “Offside, being in the right position and the infractions. And whether to call it or not, it’s a split-second thing. That’s the key. There’s been a lot of times where I see a kid (and ask myself), ‘Was it a trip, was it not a trip?’ But you can’t hesitate too long, you have to call it or let it go. And I think I’ve let more go than I’ve called. I think most of the guys that I work with say they just let them play. But you also have to teach them the rules. And I’ll notice if there’s a kid on the ice that’s being a little chippy, I won’t hesitate to call something.
“But the parallel to horse racing, I call what I see instantaneously without thinking about it. When I’m calling a race, I don’t think about it, I just react. And hopefully, the brain gets your mouth to say what’s happening, and horses can make liars out of you, too. ‘It looked like he was making a nice move, then he flattened out, I don’t know what happened.’ It’s the same with hockey, it’s split-second.”
Warkentin likes the USA Hockey practice of having beginners start off with games featuring the younger kids and adults, because not a whole lot is riding on the outcome.
“That’s the purpose of starting you at the lower levels, to get your timing, and there’s not a whole lot at stake,” he said. “I show up, I’m ready to go and I take it seriously, but at the same time, we’re not playing for the Stanley Cup here. Some of these house league games, there’s no scoresheet, they don’t even count the goals.”
At this point, Warkentin isn’t going to give up his job calling and handicapping horse races, but he is enjoying himself. He knows he’s not going to make it to the NHL, but he is interested in advancing up the refereeing ladder a little bit.
“I just like the experience,” he said. “I’m not doing it for the money, it’s not about that. It’s tough getting up on Sunday mornings sometimes, but I just really enjoy it. If I didn’t like it, I would quit, but I found something that I like to do. I’m not going to become an NHL referee. It’s like the [old AC/DC] song goes, ‘It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll.’ It’s a long road. I just want to pursue it and see how far it goes and have fun with it. My ambition is not to become a professional referee, not at my age, it’s too late. But for now, this keeps me in shape, it keeps me sharp.”
For more information on Warkentin, check out his website at kenvoice.com.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.