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When Erika Greenen showed up at Bridgestone Arena, she was welcomed by a familiar face, and someone who, like her, was once an aspiring referee trying to soak in as much knowledge as possible in the USA Hockey program: Chris Rooney.
"It was cool to see where he started, and now he's in the NHL," Greenen said. "I know I'm not going to the NHL, but it was cool because they started just to get some extra money, and you never know where it can take you."
Two years ago, Greenen participated in USA Hockey’s "Meet the NHL Officials" program, held every year in different cities across the country in conjunction with Hockey Weekend Across America.
Chase Wilkinson participated in the program in 2014, attending a Dallas Stars game, with his officiating career in its infancy.
"Just like youth hockey players, when they get to meet an NHL player, they're star struck," Wilkinson said. "That's how we are at first, and then you get to talking to them, and at the end of the day, they're just a normal person; a regular guy having normal conversations."
With Hockey Weekend Across America one week away, USA Hockey caught up with Wilkinson and Greenen years after they participated in the program to get their thoughts on the experience, and see where they are now.
USA Hockey: What was your experience with officiating prior to participating in the "Meet the NHL Officials" program?
Chase Wilkinson: I was 18 years old at the time, and I had just started working part-time as a local linesman in the Officials Development Program. Basically I was working a handful of NA3HL games, which is Junior A, Tier III hockey in Houston. And I would work local travel hockey games out of Houston.
Erika Greenen: It was my second season, so I hadn't really done too much. That was something cool to get into and see, because I had just gotten done playing and started officiating. I was doing probably like 12U games.
USAH: I’m sure you both are NHL hockey fans. Now, as officials, when you’re watching a game, are you paying closer attention to the officials than the flow of play?
EG: Once I started officiating, I definitely started watching more for the officials than the game and seeing what they were doing, rather than what in the play was actually going on.
It was definitely different. I remember the first game I worked as an official. I got there and it was weird skating without a stick. With officiating, you have to watch the whole ice rather than if I was playing, I would just be watching where the puck is going to go, and where I need to go.
USAH: Had you ever had any kind of similar experiences prior to the program?
CW: I was pretty excited. My dad used to be a linesman in the AHL, so he actually worked with two of the guys that were going to be on the game. I had met them before, so that was kind of cool, just seeing the guys that my dad had worked with move their way up to the NHL. I got to talk to them about that. I was pretty excited for that part, and I was also nervous, too. I wanted to have some questions to ask, and just be ready. All in all, I was pretty excited about it.
USAH: What did you learn that day? Did anything really surprise you?
CW: I noticed the communication between players and officials and coaches and officials is much different than youth hockey. You have your coach that will yell at you after the smallest things, but most of the time, I noticed players would just come up to the officials and they would have a peaceful, civil conversation, and so would the coaches if they had any questions. It's not this yelling match that we see all the time and the abuse that unfortunately some officials, us younger officials get. It's not usually like that in the NHL from what I noticed.
EG: People just think you're reffing and going out there, but definitely getting to meet them, and seeing them prepare for the game, they're obviously pretty fit guys to keep up in the NHL. People don’t really realize they put that work in, but they definitely do.
USAH: Is there anything you tried to bring back with you and incorporate into your own officiating?
CW: These guys have to be more in shape than the players these days because of how fast the hockey is. When I was 18, I realized a big part of the game is going to be off-ice fitness. You have to be very much in shape if you want to work high levels of hockey. That was a very big thing that I noticed.
EG: Just to doing the best you can, and I feel like in the past two seasons, just using that, I've definitely grown a lot, and doing things I'd never thought I'd do when I started.
USAH: Where are you currently with your officiating careers?
EG: I'm at Level 4 now, and I've gotten lucky and been able to attened the futures camp and the elite camp.
CW: When I went to the game that weekend, I was just starting my officiating career. Now I'm actually working pro hockey myself. I've had the opportunity for officials to come into our locker rooms and kind of do the same thing at the semi-pro level. It's a pretty cool experience to give younger kids my knowledge of the game, and my experiences. That's pretty cool at the end of the day. I want to give back to the younger officials.
USAH: And the end goal?
EG: I'd love to do something internationally, and hopefully maybe even the Olympics someday, but I definitely have a lot of work to get there.