Some people get into hockey officiating for the love of the game or to make extra money. For three generations of the Pettis family in Gaylord, Michigan, officiating is all of that, but it’s also a service to their community.
The Pettis’ — Al, his son Chuck and Chuck’s son Caleb — are all hockey officials in the town of about 3,600 people that is roughly 60 miles south of the Mackinac Bridge, which connects Michigan and its Upper Peninsula where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan meet.
As Chuck put it, there are only a few refs in town, and three have the same last name.
Al has been officiating for nearly 30 years. He started skating on ponds near Flint, Michigan, as a high schooler. Nearly 50 years later, he’s still on the ice more often than not. When he first moved to Gaylord, the only rink was outdoors. These days he stays a bit warmer, but his love of hockey and supporting local teams has not waned. He found when he moved north to Gaylord that there were not enough officials. He figured if he couldn’t play much, he could get into officiating. And then he just kept at it for the past three decades.
At 68, Al said he’s slowed down a bit, but doesn’t plan to retire soon.
“[I plan to officiate] as long as I can,” Al Pettis said. “I thought maybe [I’d stop at] 70, but I’ve got two more years until then. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to, but as long as I can skate, I will. I try not to do the older kids as much anymore. But if it’s needed, I’ll step up and do what I can.”
The communities in northern Michigan are small but tightly knit, and a love of hockey seems to permeate all corners of this part of the state. Chuck lamented that he spends so much time officiating that he often doesn’t get to watch as many Red Wings games as he’d like. That’s because in addition to refereeing the games for the local team, you can often find the Pettis men at tournaments and showcases in other cities across the area.
Gaylord is centrally located and puts them about an hour from Traverse City to the east, Alpena to the west and Cheboygan to the north. Officials in each of those cities know each other and travel to fill the gaps.
It was Caleb wanting to get involved in officiating that brought Chuck into the fold. He decided to take the classes and seminars alongside his son. Now they referee together and it’s time Chuck said he wouldn’t normally have gotten to spend with Caleb now that he’s moved out of the house.
It’s the same for Al, who wondered how many grandparents get to spend time with their grandkids like this.
“I’m blessed to be fortunate enough to have my grandson come up and I get to skate with him,” Al said. “It’s really fun working with [Caleb]. The first game I did was he was a little nervous, but I just kept encouraging him to stick with it. He does really well now.”
Caleb loves the comfort and ease he has officiating games with his dad or grandpa. They get in sync and have a decided flow to their games, he said. Chuck said the three have rarely worked as a threesome together — usually it’s two of the three who are paired together to handle a game.
They see the same teams over and over, and everyone knows who they are, said Chuck. But whenever he gets frustrated, he reminds himself of how important the game is to his family and what a big part it has been in all three of their lives. Were he to hang up his whistle, it would have an immediate negative impact on hockey in his community.
“I just like the game of hockey and I just want all the kids growing up and coming up, want them to continue to play and have somebody to have fun out there,” Chuck said.
To that end, Chuck is always encouraging younger players to attend officiating clinics and get involved, even while they are playing. Not only does the area need to continue to grow the stable of available officials, but being on the ice as a ref is very different from being there as a player or on the bench as a coach. He knows that players seeing how hard it is to keep track of everything as an official helps them be more empathetic to how difficult it can be to work a game.
Beyond that, officiating has evolved and improved Chuck’s appreciation for the game. He loves that he can appreciate the finesse and beauty of a game from right inside the action when he’s officiating. He’s still making the calls, but he’s also up close and personal with what can make hockey so great.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.