Three officials, three different paths.
But the one thing Furman South, Mitchell Hunt and Kilian McNamara have in common is they all utilized USA Hockey’s Officiating Development Program (ODP) and have realized their dream of making it to the NHL.
During the offseason, South was promoted to a full-time NHL referee, while Hunt and McNamara were hired as minor league linesmen, respectively.
“From a USA Hockey, and more specifically, an Officiating Development Program standpoint, we couldn’t be more proud of them,” said Scott Zelkin, USA Hockey manager, Officiating Development Program. “Working with Furman, Kilian and Mitchell in leagues like the USHL and NAHL when they were first starting out and now seeing them advance to the highest level in the game is really special for not only myself but our entire staff of officiating coaches. All three of these officials earned their opportunities and we are thrilled to have helped them along the way.”
For the previous five seasons, South was a minor league referee, working games in the American Hockey League (AHL) as well as the NHL.
South worked the last three AHL finals, which, he believes, helped him display his talents on the ice and earn his call-up.
“As a kid, the dream was always to kind of make it as a player, but, obviously, I was not good enough to do that,” South said. “Once I decided I was going to give officiating a try, that was obviously always the goal. Made it to the NHL one way or another, I guess.”
Growing up in the Pittsburgh area and watching Penguins greats Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr play, South was hooked on hockey. He earned a scholarship to play hockey at Division I Robert Morris University. South feels like he might have been able to play professional hockey at a lower level, but he went a different route after graduating.
He got involved in officiating to stay active, and that led to him getting into the ODP. South worked a couple junior hockey leagues, including the United States Hockey League (USHL), in 2014-15 and 2015-16. South got a shot to work some AHL games in 2015-16. The next summer, the NHL called and he signed a minor league contract.
After five years between the AHL and NHL, South’s dream call to the NHL came over the summer.
“It feels good,” said South about making it to the NHL. “Everybody’s kind of on a different schedule in terms of how long they have to spend in the American Hockey League and my timing had the whole COVID thing throw a wrench in a little bit, too.
“Definitely a good feeling to finally get that call and know that I’m going to have a job in the NHL for a long time.”
In his first year under contract with the NHL in 2016-17, he worked only one NHL game, which is pretty normal for referees, he said. Last season, he worked about 40 NHL games.
The 33-year-old South is one of 35 full-time NHL referees this season. Each official is contracted to work 73 games. His first game this year was Oct. 14 when the New York Rangers hosted the Dallas Stars.
South is hoping this is the first game of a long full-time refereeing career.
“As long as I can skate well enough to keep up,” South said.
Hunt’s journey to become an NHL linesman has been a long and winding road.
When he jumped on a Zoom call this summer with NHL Senior Vice President and Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom and Al Kimmel, director of scouting and development for officiating, Hunt was relieved to know he had made it.
“I think I was going to give it another year or two before I kind of closed my own window of opportunity,” the 25-year-old Hunt said. “I got the call, so here we are.”
Hunt started playing hockey at 8 years old in Raleigh, North Carolina, and by the time he was 11, he was officiating games. He moved to Columbus, Ohio, in 2009 and worked Tier I and II 16U and 18U games. Hunt attended Temple University and continued working youth hockey and added Tier III juniors.
During his junior year at Temple, a substitute linesman was needed in the North American Hockey League (NAHL), so Hunt jumped on that. The following summer, he was invited to USA Hockey’s High-Performance Camp and the ODP Prospects Camp in Buffalo, New York. Prior to graduating, Hunt worked a full schedule of NAHL games. When COVID cut short the 2019-20 season, Hunt was in Birmingham, Alabama, officiating Southern Pro League games. He worked ECHL games in 2020 in Wichita, Kansas, and moved back to Seattle after the season.
Then the call came from the NHL and it’s been a “blur ever since,” he said.
“I’ve kind of watched guys, their progression up in the league and that’s not something that comes immediate — it doesn’t come in the first year or in two, three years in. I’m just kind of happy that I’m here. I’m not going to sit around and try and get complacent now that I’ve made it and think that’s all the work that I have to do, because it’s kind of one of those things where the hard work starts now.”
Hunt — who is based in Seattle — is slated to work five NHL games in October, which started with the Colorado Avalanche hosting the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 13.
“Getting that first regular-season game is going to be kind of everything building up to one moment,” Hunt said. “One thing I’ve been told from the guys is you don’t even remember the game, because it’s all about having your family there and getting to spend time with them before and after the game. They may be there for me, but it’s more of a celebration of everything everybody else has put in to get me here.”
McNamara took part in the NHL’s Exposure Combine in August and showed off his abilities. What happened next took him by surprise.
He had a conversation with the top brass at the event and was hired by the NHL on the spot as a full-time minor league linesman.
“It was definitely something that when the conversation was finished you kind of get chills because you always kind of picture it and walk through the situation yourself, but when it actually happens, it definitely puts you into a whole other mindset,” McNamara said.
Just like Hunt, McNamara is contracted to work AHL and NHL games this season. There are just six minor league linesmen who are under contract.
Prior to the combine, McNamara had an eye-opening experience officiating the World Junior Summer Showcase in Plymouth, Michigan.
“It was a really cool experience,” McNamara said. “I’d never worked any type of international hockey before in my life, so it was really interesting to see how the game is played from different countries.”
McNamara, 26, has also had a long road to get to officiating professional hockey.
Growing up in Lantana, Florida — historically not a hockey hotbed — McNamara played juniors for the Florida Jr. Blades. He played club hockey at the University of New Hampshire, winning a national title his freshman season.
McNamara started refereeing at 13 at the youth level. In college, he worked junior games and went to a couple USA Hockey camps. He learned about the opportunities through the ODP.
In the 2016-17 season, McNamara was invited to an ODP Prospects Camp. He worked part-time in the NAHL while wrapping up his college hockey career.
The following summer, he worked full-time through the NAHL and did some USHL games when he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota.
McNamara was fully engrossed in the ODP from 2017-18 and 2018-19. He moved to Des Moines, Iowa, to officiate USHL games and dabbled in ECHL, AHL and Division I NCHC contests.
“I was working four, five, six different leagues that year,” McNamara said. “It was very cool to kind of see how the players progressed and how the officiating progressed and how the talent gets better as you move up the chain.”
He got a full-time opportunity through the ECHL the next summer and moved to Greenville, South Carolina. After COVID shut down the league prematurely, McNamara moved back home to Florida to do ECHL games.
McNamara is now excited to have a shot at working NHL games.
“I think any time you get to step on the ice and put on that NHL jersey and just represent the NHL, I think is a huge honor in itself,” McNamara said. “I think that definitely would excite anybody. To be able to be on the ice with all these great officials and players and coaches, I think it’s a dream come true to anybody. It’s definitely something I’m not taking for granted, that’s for sure.”