The United States Hockey League (USHL) will be hosting its 2015 Top Prospects Game at Mystique Community Ice Center in Dubuque, Iowa, on Jan. 13. This event will not only feature the 40 top NHL prospects in the USHL, but four of the top officials as well.
“We think of our league as a developmental platform not only for young players, but for officials, front office staff and coaches,” said Bob Fallen, USHL President and Commissioner. “For the officials, the game is moving at a faster pace than the previous level they came from so they need to make adjustments to the speed and skill of the game, much like the players.”
Chad Roethlisberger, Luke Martin, Sean Fernandez and Billy Hancock were selected to officiate the game. USA Hockey caught up with them to discuss the opportunity and how they got here.
USA Hockey: What does it mean to be selected as an official for an event of this caliber?
Chad Roethlisberger: It’s a complete honor and privilege to be selected as one of the four officials. There are so many high quality and talented officials in the USHL today that it means a lot to be recognized not only by our supervisors but also the coaches in the league. There are countless numbers of people that have helped me get to where I am today. From my mentors back home in Green Bay, Wis., to the supervisors and officials I get to work with every weekend in the USHL, I couldn't have done it without the knowledge and support they have given me. It’s also a privilege to be skating with 40 of the top young athletes the USHL has to offer. Hopefully we’ll be able to see many of them wearing NHL jerseys in the near future.
Luke Martin: It's an honor to be selected to work this game. I see this as a great accomplishment in my officiating career.
Sean Fernandez: It's a great honor to be selected to work this event. This has been on my goal list since I started working in the USHL. I'm excited to get the opportunity to work this game featuring some of the top players in North America. Should be a lot of fun.
Billy Hancock: Being selected by our superiors is a high honor and extends a privilege to share the ice with a very high-skilled group of players. It’s going to be a great opportunity to represent ourselves and our teammates.
USAH: How did you get into officiating?
Roethlisberger: I first got involved because of my uncle, Brad. He worked in the USHL, NCAA and some minor pro leagues. I began officiating at age 10. I was only a squirt back then, so I could just do mite games, but I enjoyed the extra ice time. I guess there was never a time where I didn't enjoy officiating the game, so I kept coming back each year.
Martin: I started officiating youth hockey when I was 11. Started off officiating to get some extra ice time and make a little money as a kid.
Fernandez: I got into officiating just like most others probably did. Started when I was about 14 years old, and while playing, I thought ‘what better way to earn some money and get extra ice time?’ so I went to the seminar and then the rest is history.
Hancock: When I was 14, I had a friend I was playing high school hockey with at Berkley High School, just outside of Detroit. He said he had gotten into it and was making good money as a freshman in high school. It’s funny to think that it was just going to be a part-time job to make some extra cash to spend time with my friends on the weekends, however, it turned out to be the biggest career choice of my life thus far. Growing up in a small community was helpful. I was one of six officials in the association, which allowed me plenty of ice time to advance my officiating experience aside from playing goalie for my team three to four times a week.
USAH: Do you remember your first game?
Roethlisberger: My first game in the USHL was Dec. 17, 2011 – Des Moines vs. Youngstown. I went to school with Ryan Belonger, who was playing for Youngstown at the time, so it was cool to have a little hometown connection for my first game in the league. I remember being nervous just about all day leading up to the game. We had a fight early on but after that I think I settled in fairly well. Besides the difference in size and speed compared to what I was used to working in the other junior leagues, the big difference I noticed was that many of the players were very personable with the officials. There would be a lot of talk between the players and officials and so learning how to properly communicate with the players was something I had to learn very quickly. Being able to talk to the guys and having a good sense of humor when appropriate can help you gain a lot of respect from the players as well, especially when you're new and they don't know you.
Martin: I actually do not remember my first game but I do remember my first junior game. It was in Rochester, Minn., working the Minnesota Junior Hockey League. I was 19 years old for my first game.
Fernandez: I remember my first USHL game – it was in Muskegon, Mich. It was nice because, being from Traverse City, Mich., which is only 2.5 hours north, I had my family come down and enjoy the game. Memorable, fun experience.
Hancock: It was a squirt game at Berkley Ice Arena. I worked with my friend, Adam, who had only been working a few games as well. I remember I was still new to skating in player skates as opposed to goalie skates. I was moving backwards and clipped my heel and felt as if I was launched five feet in the air and landed on my back. Still to this day I think that’s been the most painful fall I’ve had in my career, and trust me, I’ve gone down hard a lot. Sadly, I didn’t get to call a penalty, but it still was quite an experience. Crazy to think about how far I’ve come since that game about nine years ago.
USAH: Tell us about your development path as an official. What kind of experience did you need and what resources did you use to get where you are today?
Roethlisberger: My path was no different than anyone else who first began officiating for USA Hockey. I started out as a Level 1, working youth games in Green Bay and surrounding areas. From there I had to be patient to work my way up to the next level as I got older. After I graduated high school, I got involved in the Officiating Development Program working Tier II/III junior hockey. The next step was to attend the USA Hockey Western Regional Camp. From there I started to get a handful of USHL games and eventually on a more regular basis the following few seasons once I developed the skills and experience needed to work in the league consistently. This past summer, I was fortunate enough to attend the USA Hockey National Camp, which was another great learning experience. I’ve been able to use a lot of things I learned during that week in Buffalo in the games I work in the USHL and other leagues. Looking back at it, what helped me a lot was always taking advantage of opportunities given to me. Whether it was an extra squirt game or attending a USA Hockey camp, doing whatever I could to make myself better certainly helped as I tried to advance my career. Also, being patient and not trying to rush myself into working levels of hockey I wasn't ready for yet, even if I thought I was ready. I credit all my supervisors both local and in the ODP for making sure I was comfortable at one level before moving me up to the next.
Martin: When I first started officiating, I was just trying to understand the game of hockey and trying to figure out how to look at the game from a different perspective. As a young official, I had to learn to deal with conflict and confrontation from players and coaches. It wasn't easy, but I had a lot of help from older officials along the way. Over the years, I've put a lot of time and effort into my conditioning and training on and off the ice. I've learned that I always need to be physically prepared as well as mentally prepared before I go out to work a game. One of the big things to stay mentally prepared is having a good grasp on the rulebook. Knowing the rules and all of your options in the book is key to success in our business.
Fernandez: My development as an official has been quite the journey. I started working in the ODP in 2007 after I attended a regional camp up in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. From there I started working junior hockey throughout attending college at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich. After I graduated, a lot of doors opened up to live in league apartments and work my way up the ranks in junior hockey as well as working my first pro games.
Hancock: I was fortunate enough to cover for someone at the Michigan State Fairgrounds for a AAA game, which was my first. Luckily one of the coaches loved me and asked the scheduler, Matt Tripplett, to use me on a regular basis. I worked AAA hockey continuously for the next couple seasons, working Tier I states and being selected for various Tier II national championships in Lansing and Detroit. When I was 18, I was invited to an ODP part-time camp in Detroit, which started my junior career. The game experience has been priceless, however, the advice I have retained from the various supervisors and fellow officials throughout the years has been invaluable in addition to the development camps that USA Hockey offers. Regional, National and Merit camp this past summer have all been great experiences and have definitely improved my officiating ability immensely. I would name off everyone who has had a role in getting me where I’m at today, but that list would be enough to populate a novel.
USAH: Do you have advice from officials who are looking to develop and advance up the ranks?
Roethlisberger: For the young kids looking to become officials and work high levels of hockey, my first piece of advice would be to enjoy your playing days. Play for as long as you can. The longer you play, the better feel you will get for the game, and that will definitely help you in your officiating. Play as many sports as you can. The guys in the USHL aren't just great hockey players, they're great athletes, and most of them played other sports growing up as well. The players are getting faster and stronger, so we have to as well. And the more training you can do to become a better athlete will help you separate you from the other officials. For the older kids wanting to work junior hockey in the ODP, do it while going to college. I've been working on my college degree while in the ODP and it’s worked just fine for many of us who were going to class on the weekdays and working games on the weekends. And finally, for everyone, go chase your dreams. If the NHL is your goal, who is to say that you can't do it? If you put forth the effort and take advantage of your opportunities, you’ll be well on your way to reaching your goals. Strive to do your best every game. You never know who is in the building watching. Most importantly, have fun.
Martin: One piece of advice I can give young officials is to always try and stay positive. Every official will make mistakes throughout their career but it's important to always learn from your mistakes. It's a rough business and can be really hard at times, but if you always try and stay positive, you can overcome any adversity you face.
Fernandez: Put in the time and work. Gain as much knowledge and experience you can from the games and fellow officials you're on the ice with and the rest will come. It's a long journey and I hope you like the highway. Give back to the game where you can.
Hancock: Keep your head down and take every bit of advice you can get. The best part about working your way to the higher leagues through the ODP, or whatever route you decide to take, is the journey and all the friends you’ll make. It may be long hours behind the windshield and late-night drives, missing birthdays, parties and maybe even life-changing events, but they’ll be some of the best days of your life. Don’t rush it. Enjoy it.
Tag(s): Stripes Newsletter