While living in Albany, New York, officiating hockey was big in John Helsdon’s life.
But when he moved to Rapid City, South Dakota, in 1979, the western part of the state didn’t have organized youth hockey.
Helsdon, in his early 30s at the time, would play pond hockey with fellow workers from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. The guys put up boards at an outdoor rink in town and skated.
“They’d been trying for years to get something going,” Helsdon said.
It wasn’t until the late 1990s that Helsdon read one day there was going to be a youth hockey tournament in his small, Midwest town. Helsdon was excited to check it out.
“I started talking to this fella who became a good friend over the years,” Helsdon said. “He’d gone to Cornell University in New York and he was a goalie, but he started officiating when he was at Cornell. We got to talking and I said, ‘Yeah, I used to referee back in New York.’ And he said, ‘Do you want to do a game?’ I said, ‘Sure. Why not?’”
Helsdon raced home to grab his Amateur Hockey Association of the United States (AHAUS) — later USA Hockey — striped jersey and skates.
Helsdon worked a two-man referee crew at the tournament while the guy who suggested he referee looked on and took notes.
“I’d never had a mentor, never had anybody teaching me stuff, and so that was my first evaluation,” Helsdon said. “He pointed out some things to me.”
From that day forward, Helsdon was back in the game. Since re-lacing his skates in 1998, Helsdon hasn’t stopped his love for calling hockey games, and he even started a mentoring program to get young players into officiating. For his major contributions in educating officials, Helsdon was named the 2020 Chet Stewart Award winner by USA Hockey.
“I’m thrilled for him,” said Cade Bloomenrader, referee-in-chief, South Dakota. “He deserves it. He’s definitely one of those guys that epitomizes the grassroots official.”
Helsdon feels like winning the coveted volunteering award is validation for all his years of hard work and dedication.
“I read some of the bios of some of the people that got the award ahead of me and I thought, ‘Boy, these guys are really doing stuff. What did I do?’” Helsdon said. “I guess the committee felt like what I was doing was worthwhile, so I’m really pleased to get the award. It’s a great honor, it really is.”
Getting Back into it
Helsdon, a native of Buffalo, New York, area, earned his AHAUS certification in 1977 while he was in grad school at the University of Albany.
He officiated some men’s league games and other events before heading off to South Dakota two years later.
Due to no opportunities with hockey in his new state, Helsdon didn’t work another game for almost two decades. He earned his USA Hockey certification patch in fall 1998.
Helsdon would drive two hours to Gillette, Wyoming, to referee games because there wasn’t a rink in Rapid City. He got into the system for the South Dakota Amateur Hockey Association and worked games around the state. Helsdon has been a referee for high school, youth and even some American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) games.
It was most rewarding for Helsdon to referee for the youth players.
“As referees for the young ages, you’re there to teach kids the game from a rules perspective: a positioning perspective as far as how to you line up for a faceoff, what you can do, what can’t you do, if they commit a penalty, you explain it to them and tell them what they did and why that’s wrong,” Helsdon said. “For the younger kids, you’re an educator, and for the older kids, you’re a manager.”
Teaching the Next Generation
Helsdon’s grandson played hockey and when the two would travel for games in Pierre, South Dakota, they’d go early to watch the mites and squirts. Helsdon would teach his grandson about refereeing. He knew there was a need for young officials in Rapid City.
“I thought, ‘We really need young kids to be doing this,’” Helsdon said. “So, I talked to my grandson, who was playing in pee wees at the time. I said, ‘Do you want to help do some officiating?’ And he was game.”
His grandson got certified in 2010 at age 11. After a season working mite and squirt games, Helsdon’s grandson’s teammates wanted to learn to officiate. Helsdon took on the task of teaching.
In the first season in 2012, Helsdon had six kids sign up for the Youth Mentoring Program. Helsdon approached the house hockey director with the Rushmore Hockey Association in Rapid City about training the officials at its rink.
“I said, ‘I’ve got these kids that want to learn how to officiate. How about we use your house league as a training ground for officials and I’ll take care of training the officials and your kids will get officials working their games?’” Helsdon said. He said, ‘OK. Great.’”
Since the Rushmore Hockey Association wasn’t in a financial position to pay the officials, Helsdon made donations to the association for the purpose to pay the young kids.
Helsdon started by teaching his young officials in a three-man crew setup. His grandson would be the center referee and Helsdon would shadow the two linesmen and teach them those positions. Once they learned that, it switched to a two-man and they called penalties and worked the lines. Then at the end of the season, they graduated to being the center referee.
“The house league loved it because they were getting real officials,” Helsdon said. “So, I’d go out and shadow them on the ice to teach them some stuff and my grandson knew what he was doing as far as refereeing the game was concerned because he’d been at it a couple years already.”
Bloomenrader knows how important it is to teach young players how to officiate as they become the next wave to help the game run smoothly.
“All sports need youth officials, young officials or new officials and John has really helped South Dakota and locally Rapid City to bring in that next group of youth officials,” Bloomenrader said. “He’s helped foster that love of the game and love of officiating.”
By Year 2, over a dozen kids signed up for the Youth Mentoring Program. The next year, Helsdon made a presentation to the Rushmore Hockey Association board about the benefits of teaching young officials. The association decided to start funding the officials.
Since starting the program eight years ago, Helsdon figures he has turned about 50 individuals into officials.
“He’s super passionate about hockey, super passionate about officiating,” said Bloomenrader about Helsdon. “If you talk to John very long at all, he kind of exudes hockey. He loves the game. I think he instills that passion into the kids he teaches, too.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.