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Playoff Hockey: How to call the big game

By Miles McQuinn, 03/12/15, 9:00AM MDT


Q & A with USAH Officiating Section Director Mark Wilkins

There’s nothing better than playoff hockey. The speed, the intensity, the tension – it all ramps up. What does it all mean for officials? USA Hockey Officiating Section Director Mark Wilkins thrives under the big-game spotlight. He has been a part of NCAA regional tournaments, a Canada Cup, the 2010 NCAA men’s title game and an outdoor matchup between Michigan and Michigan State dubbed “Big Chill at the Big House.”

Wilkins has seen the gamut of important hockey games and he knows there’s a noticeable shift for everyone on the ice. The veteran shares his keys to calling big games.

USA Hockey: From a player standpoint, the mentality changes in the playoffs. Is it the same for officials?

Mark Wilkins: Absolutely. You feel the intensity. You feel the pressure, no matter if it’s a peewee game, house league, district playoffs or national championships, there's no question. Typically there are not the same guys that work those games. In a NCAA Division I situation or USA Hockey Districts, you've got to be selected for those games, they're not just assigned. The NHL is the same way. They start out with about 40 referees and that gets cut right in half when you start the playoffs. It’s the same with the youth programs. You are selected on how you perform during the year, not on how you performed in years past. Some guys make it every year because they're at that ability, some guys don't ever make it.

USAH: Have you ever wanted to be selected for a certain game and not gotten the call to do so? 

Wilkins: Yes. I've wanted to do some games and have not been able to do them. There were years where I wasn't selected to go on in the NCAA regionals.

USAH: How did you respond to that?

Wilkins: I took a step back and looked at why are those guys working and I'm not. What do I need to do to get better? What sets them apart compared to where I'm at? Is it conditioning? Is it rule knowledge? Is it positioning? Those are the kinds of things that set certain officials apart. What I want to do is I want to get back there. You get that taste in your mouth and you want to go back every year.

USAH: How do you prepare differently for the playoffs?

Wilkins: I don't think I prepared that much differently for the playoffs than I did for most of the games, especially at a high level. You know you've got to be out there at your best at all times. In playoffs, the intensity is clearly higher and the intensity is clearly higher from everybody's standpoint. To prepare for that, I would re-read some of the rulebook, especially the playing rules and the stuff that isn't in the everyday game. With intensity comes desperate times and sometimes some of the stuff you see in the playoffs is out of desperation and you need to make sure you're ready to make that call. A tripping penalty in the first two or even three periods could be different than a tripping penalty in overtime just by the rule difference. Knocking the net off is a delay of game (penalty), but in the last two minutes of the third period or anytime in overtime it's now a penalty shot. 

There are clearly some differences in the playoffs. You need to prepare for them. It's not your everyday hook, trip and slash that's going to get you in trouble. It's the odd stuff that happens out of desperate times and you need to make sure that you're calling it right.

USAH: What are some of the problems you’ve seen when officiating a playoff hockey game?

Wilkins: Desperate times call for desperate measures and things happen that you're not used to. The other factor is if you're doing a playoff game and it's a blowout. How do you handle the blowout? One team is moving on to the next weekend or the next game and one team is not. If the score gets lopsided, you need to know how to protect the team that's moving on, but you still have to call the penalties (if they retaliate).

USAH: What’s the best part of officiating a playoff hockey game?

Wilkins: The best part about officiating a playoff hockey game is the intensity and the play of the game. You can go out there, and if they didn't know you refereed the game, that's perfect. You go out there and you're into the game from the very start. The game itself is such a good hockey game that you just enjoy it. That's the best part about playoff hockey. Typically in playoff hockey games they're out there to play. They're not out there to screw around. They're not out there to fight. They're not out there to whack somebody. As long as the game is close, they're just trying to win. You leave that game on such a high because you know you've done a great job and you know the players are out there to play.