With officiating participation across all levels in hockey at one of its highest points in years, the work and dedication to overcome the challenges of the last few years seems to be paying off.
USA Hockey has taken a leadership role in these efforts by improving the overall game-day experience and continuing to make the officiating space a welcoming place for all. This includes the creation of the sport’s first-ever officiating task force, which shared its recommendations at the governing body’s most recent Annual Meetings. While protecting officials and ensuring opportunities are certainly key pieces of the puzzle, skill development for those wearing the black and white stripes is also a critical component to growing the game.
USA Hockey’s proactive response to helping develop officials at all levels is the Advanced Officiating Development Program (AODP), a key initiative under the leadership of USA Hockey’s Officiating Education Department. USA Hockey describes the AODP as an advanced development program that identifies and trains USA Hockey officials who want to work the highest levels of hockey.
According to AODP Director Scott Zelkin, the goals of the program are, “to coach, train and develop our best officials so they can advance to the highest levels of hockey possible and have success, whether that’s junior, minor league, collegiate, international or professional.”
Previously known as the Junior Officiating Development Program, the basic tenets of the AODP will remain despite the new name. From in-depth, in-person and video coaching and education, to exposure at junior-level games across the country, to opportunities for performance evaluation and feedback, officials hoping to move up to the next levels of hockey will learn the essential skills required to be successful, and gain knowledge from the best teachers in the business, including retired NHL officials.
“The tools an official needs are not only good judgement, but communication, presence, understanding and knowing how to read a game,” said Zelkin. “They have to go into each game with a plan, know the right time to assert themselves and how to handle pressure. USA Hockey will help officials grow and learn. Officials can get better by working games, but sometimes it takes outside help to make them the best they can be.”
Growing the Game
The rebranding of the program indicates not only a more global perspective, but also a more unifying one, as the program includes both female and male officials. Zelkin says the program will provide a structure and foundation and path for women looking to take that next step in their officiating careers.
“Expanding the program for female officials is probably the biggest change,” said Zelkin. “For the last few years, we had a training camp at the start of the season for officials working in the NAHL and USHL. We’ve expanded that camp to include 15-20 of our top female officials. It’s an exciting evolution of our program.”
Per Zelkin, upcoming AODP activities include a preseason training camp in Plymouth, Mich., Aug. 23-27; a meeting with IIHF-licensed officials prior to IIHF Championships for 2023-24; an NAHL Showcase in Blaine, Minn., Sept. 13-16; the USHL Fall Classic in Cranberry, Pa., Sept. 20-24; and the National Invitational Tournament in Minnesota, Oct. 19-22.
Future of Officiating Looks Bright
As this unique program evolves, Zelkin can’t help but feel good about the future of officiating in the United States.
“I’m extremely optimistic,” Zelkin says. “USA Hockey and other federations around the world have a strong sense of how important officiating is to the health of the game. If officiating isn’t healthy, the game will suffer. And there’s a commitment on the part of USA Hockey to make sure we do all we can to make officiating the best it can be. When you add that to the passion these young 18-to-22-year-olds have shown at camps, it leads me to be confident that the future is good.”
“This program is going to help both male and female officials hone their skills,” Zelkin added. “Officials develop just like players do. Development is rarely linear. Whether they’re a new official just figuring out what it takes to be successful, or someone who has been doing it for a while, there’s no such thing as a perfect official. Our program will provide the tools so they can be successful. There’s nothing like it in the world.”