Scott Zelkin began the process of becoming an official when he was a 12-year-old player in suburban Chicago.
“Our coach told us we had to sign up to be referees to get some extra ice time,” Zelkin said.
From there, he discovered a passion for it and worked his way up through the professional hockey ranks and eventually became a full-time official in the NHL.
Now in his seventh year as the manager of the Junior Officiating Development Program, Zelkin is charged with leading the development of aspiring officials between the ages of 18-25, many who go on to work collegiate, professional and international competition.
Zelkin said that just like players, coaches and parents involved in the game, officials are itching to get back onto the ice when the time is right. He sat down with USA Hockey to discuss what officials can be doing to maximize their development during this time away from the ice.
What can officials do right now to stay sharp?
Zelkin: Across the board, officials can continue to work on their fitness and stay in shape. The officials that work within our program in the USHL and NAHL, we’re encouraging them to really work on their fitness now. They’re not in the rinks working games, so there’s an opportunity to work on fast feet, to work on quickness, to work on agility, to work on some of those dryland things that are going to help them. We have a strength and conditioning coach with the Houston Texans working with officials in our group to offer exercises and workout plans, and we’re encouraging our officials to work on that.
Another way is spending a few minutes in the rulebook and refreshing their knowledge of the rules. While we are all slowing down a bit, take a few minutes to brush up on the rules. It’s going to pay off in the long run because you’ll be more prepared when the game comes back.
Where are the best resources to stay sharp on the rules?
Zelkin: On USAHockey.com under the officiating tab and education materials, there is a ton of good stuff for officials to stay sharp. There’s the rulebook, there’s the clip of the week, ask the official section, there’s a treasure-trove of information to help officials stay sharp and refocus. The clip of the week gives examples of different situations that might have occurred. There are 25 weeks of “Ask the Officials” questions where officials can go back and review situations. All of those things are great refreshers and great reminders.
Right now, there is a weekly “You Make the Call” challenge on social media. Have you enjoyed watching the interaction and seeing people involved that may not be officials make calls that officials have to make in real time?
Zelkin: I think it’s a great exercise for everyone involved in the game. I think it helps everyone understand the game a little better. It also challenges those involved, whether it’s players or coaches, to have to make those calls to get a sense of what it’s like to be an official and have to make those decisions. It’s just a cool way right now to stay connected to the game.
How are you interacting with the officials involved in the program?
Zelkin: There’s a couple hundred officials within our program, and between myself and a couple of other people, we’re trying to reach out and talk to every single one of them just to offer some support and let them know we’re thinking about them. A lot of the officials working for us have taken on the challenge to really dedicate themselves on a much more intensive basis of working in our top junior leagues. No different than the teams, they were all looking forward to the playoffs and competing within our group to try to get to the Clark Cup final (USHL) or the Robertson Cup (NAHL). So there’s a huge disappointment factor for the officials no different from the teams.
They want to know how their season went and what they need to work on. Every single official I’ve talked to, their emotions are two-fold. There is disappointment for how the season ended, which is no different than everyone involved in the game. But they’re all really motivated to come back better and stronger than ever next year and they’re really excited to get back into it.
There has been a drop in retention numbers for officials across youth sports. As an official yourself, what are ways that players, parents, coaches and volunteers can help keep officials coming back?
Zelkin: Retention is a huge issue within the game. When it comes to hockey, we’re all in this together. I really wish coaches, parents, players, everybody within the game took that to heart. The young official that is working 10U or 8U hockey, that official is learning just like the player.
When you go to a national tournament at the higher end of the youth programs, those players want the best officials they can possibly get for those games. Well, the only way for those officials to develop and qualify for those games includes working younger levels and making some mistakes.
If we appreciate that the officials are trying their best, the officials are working hard, they’re doing the absolute best they can and they’re trying to serve the game, we’ll be able to bring that younger official, or even that older official that’s just starting out, back to the rink. If we lose perspective and we don’t treat the officials well, those officials aren’t going to come back. And when we don’t have enough officials, the game suffers.
For those who are wanting to become an official next year, what’s the best way for them to start that process?
Zelkin: The best way for them to start that process is to register to become an official with USA Hockey. Registration will start after Memorial Day. That will give you the opportunity to get connected with your local officials association so that you can get education needed to step on the ice and get into the game.
For young players or people, it’s a great way to get extra ice time and improve your skating. And quite frankly, it’s also a great way to earn a little extra spending money. You’re serving the game, and you never know, you might discover a passion that you didn’t think you had for something.