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Back on the Ice

By USA Hockey, 11/06/20, 3:15PM MST


Like the players, officials are making an enjoyable return to the ice amidst new safety policies and procedures

As teams trickle back on to the ice for regular season hockey, officials too are enjoying their trips back to the rink.

We caught up with Jake Rekuki, an American Hockey League official based out of Michigan, and Matt Wilhite, president of the Colorado Springs officials’ group, to hear how they’ve navigated returning to the rink—and how much it means to them to keep their on-ice passion alive. 

Stripes: First thing first, what’s it been like getting back to in-game action after time off? What new safety protocols are in place within your states?

Jake Rekuke: Michigan was the first to mandate masks on the ice. All players wear masks. When you walk in the rink, you get your temperature tested and you keep your mask on the whole time. Players come dressed. For officials, we go to the hallway and get dressed on chairs. It’s weird, I’ll admit. But you do what you can. 

Matt Wilhite: It’s impacted everyone in the sport. There are now many different protocols for showing up to the rink. You do not necessarily have the full amount of time in the locker room to prepare mentally and get ready. This is due to reducing exposure and maintaining building capacity to a minimum.  You also get your temperature checked. Something a lot of officials have mentioned to me, with keeping numbers in the rinks to a minimum, there are fewer spectators and therefore a lot less official abuse, which is something that is becoming more and more prolific, not just in our sport but nationwide in all sports.

Stripes: Well that has to be a welcomed change then…

MW: Personally, I like the crowd. It’s a sport of emotion. There’s a lot of time and a lot of commitment put into training, so I understand that. And, I’m human. I’m not perfect, I make mistakes, so really the crowd fuels me. It keeps me energized and focused on the game and allows me to get a good sense of what’s going on. So, actually, I do kind of miss it.

Stripes: Jake, with no AHL action—which as of now is set to return in February 2021—you’ve been officiating youth games in Michigan to stay fresh. How’s that been?

JR: The past couple of years with my AHL schedule, youth hockey has kind of taken a backseat. I was just so busy. This year I am able to work a couple of games on the weekend, just to stay involved in the game. I hadn’t officiated since professional hockey ended in March, so it’s nice to be able to use that as a way to still be involved in the game and be ready when pro hockey returns.

Stripes: We all know the importance of not sitting ideal even during offseason/shutdowns…

JR: It’s the same thing as playing. I’ve learned so many things over the years, little tips and tricks and if you’re not using them, you’re losing them. Even if I go a weekend or two without working, I feel like it takes a second to get back in and get mentally focused again.

Stripes: Matt, have you seen a similar influx in officials looking for work at the grassroots level with no NHL in Denver?

MW: Most of those guys are in Denver. There is a junior team down here, so there are a couple of guys from Denver that work it. There are a few AHL guys who come down, too, just to try and stay in shape and stay involved in the game. They always want to stay loose and stay focused so when their main gig starts up they aren’t start from square one, they’re ready to go.

Stripes: Overall though, just being back has to be pretty nice.

JR: I think so. It’s different but once you get out there a couple of times, hockey is still hockey—whether you’re wearing a mask or not. Penalties are the same, both teams are trying to score goals and win games. The circumstances around the game may have changed and altered, but we still love being out there.

MW: Outside of playing, officiating has been my favorite thing, without a doubt. So, when all this was going on, I was concerned about the impact and inability to be out there. Having the opportunity to continue to be on the ice has been amazing. I think the local associations, our referee association included, has been really good in terms of trying to get back in the return to play. Doing the testing and what not, making sure we’re following protocols to ensure safety as much as we can to allow us to do what we love. We forget, while a lot of us use this as exercise, there’s a mental component there, too, which has really helped during quarantines and lack of social interactions these days. Being able to get on the ice and being able to socialize with your linesman, coaches, and players has been really helpful psychologically and emotionally as well as physically. I’m happy to be back.