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From Serbia to the States

By USA Hockey, 08/01/16, 12:30PM MDT


Q-and-A with Ivan Nedeljkovic, an official with hopes of working on the ice in the U.S.

For 15 years, Ivan Nedeljkovic enjoyed being a hockey player. The Serbian suited up for his national team, once with the U-18 squad in the 2007 IIHF Under-18 Men’s World Championship and a second time in 2009 with the U-20 team. But when injuries forced him into early retirement, he looked for another on-ice outlet.

He found it in officiating.

“[My] passion for hockey I’ve had since my first practice on the ice. My passion for officiating came totally unexpected,” said Nedeljkovic, who attended the USA Hockey Officiating Development Camp in Buffalo, New York, last summer, further igniting his fire for wearing the stripes. “After I stopped playing, I got a call from my friend, Nebojsa Ivanov, who was an official at the time. He told me that he needed my help and asked if I’d want to officiate.

“I tried it and liked it. After the game Nebojsa said I have a talent and wanted to know if I’d like to continue to officiate. Since then, I’ve loved every moment on the ice.”

Recognizing his love for officiating, Nedeljkovic knew his best shot at becoming one of the top officials on the ice was to be in the United States and learn from USA Hockey. The 27-year-old told us what attracted him to USA Hockey, and why he hopes to continue under the officiating umbrella for years to come.

USA Hockey: What attracted you from Serbia to one of the USA Hockey Officiating Development Camps last year?

Ivan Nedeljkovic:
In Serbia, we have a very challenging situation for ice hockey because it is a very expensive sport. We only have ice for about eight months per year, and an amateur league with only six teams. Therefore, during the preparation period and season we have a small number of games, and not many opportunities to officiate. In such an environment, it is very hard to make progress. I really love ice hockey and I was trying to get as many chances to officiate as I could. So, I took the first offer to also officiate in the Hungarian MOL Liga. A part of club championships, in 2012-13, I had the honor to participate for my first time at the [IIHF] World Championships as a linesman. I got to see how this game can be officiated and, more importantly, how it can be supervised at a much higher level.

After that, I participated in three more (Division II / Group B) World Championships. At my third World Championship [in 2015], I was lucky enough to have Matt Leaf as a supervisor. In just those couple of days, I learned a lot of new things. He is definitely the best supervisor that I have ever had at an IIHF tournament.

In whatever I do, I'm trying to be the best that I can. I always want to learn new things and progress. I realized that the USA Hockey officiating program is the best place where officials can get that chance to grow their skills in all segments of officiating the game. So, after I came back home from World Championships last year, I immediately contacted Matt and asked him if I could join the USA Hockey officiating summer camp. I was delighted when he gave me that opportunity to join other fellow officials from U.S. junior leagues and to join USA Hockey officiating summer camp.

USA Hockey: What differences did you notice in the way officials learn in the U.S.?

In Serbia, learning how to officiate is a totally different experience. The first problem is that young hockey players don't want to officiate. They just want to play, and if they can't play they end any contact with hockey. The result is that officials in Serbia start at the end of their playing career – usually they are at that time 25 years old or sometimes even older.

On the other hand, as I heard from officials at the development camp in Buffalo, usually all of them [in the U.S.] start officiating when they were much younger – around 15 years old or less – which gives them a chance to gain significant experience by the time that we in Serbia usually start to officiate. 

Secondly, in Serbia, we have a big problem with knowledge transfer, due to the fact that last year, for the first time, our national federation officially introduced the role of an officiating supervisor. In the past, young officials did not have a chance to get structured and constructive advice from senior officials at the end of every game. It was more organized as a chit-chat in the locker room.

There is also a big problem in that our senior officials are not even close as far as experience goes compared to the officials and supervisors in the U.S. I will take the example of supervisor Dan Schachte, who impressed me a lot at the camp that I attended in the U.S. He probably had more games in the NHL than all officials in Serbia together in our league. My point is, extensive experience across different U.S. hockey leagues gives the U.S. supervisors much more knowledge and experience that they can generously share with officials on ice.

Finally, there is a difference in the number and quality of games that we officiate. Last year I had around 30 games in whole season in all leagues I officiated, including the World Championships. 

USA Hockey: Is there anything like the education system in place for Serbian officials?

In Serbia, there is a one-day seminar before the season but that is not even close to USA camps. Usually the seminar covers new changes in rules, how the next season should look, and we have written knowledge test at the end.

This is the second season that Serbian Federation sent officials to Korea for their summer camp. I was not there, so I cannot say at what level it was. This season, one Serbian team joined the Hungarian league, so the best officials from Serbia will go to Hungary to their summer camp to prepare for the season. I was at that camp last year. They have a good camp for four days and a very good development program to make new and young officials.

USA Hockey: What are some of your favorite parts of USA Hockey Officiating?

It seems to me that system is very well developed. Officials have everything (camps, games, experienced supervisors, a whole program made for them), so if they want to work hard and if they love this game, it looks like that they can improve themselves a lot through the years. One more thing, teamwork and positioning for linesmen are a little bit different then IIHF standard but for me USA standard suits me better.

USA Hockey: What do you hope to learn by joining the USA Hockey Junior Officiating Development Program?

Last time at camp, in just a couple of days I totally changed the way of moving, positioning, and thinking during the game. All of that helped me to make good calls during the game. I think that during last year’s camp I learned and improved my skills more than I ever have in my whole career. I hope that I will improve every segment of officiating at least a bit more this season and with the USA Hockey Junior Officiating Development Program, because there is always space for progress and the USA Hockey development program is definitely designed for that purpose.

USA Hockey: Would you recommend other officials from around the world to consider relocating to the U.S. and learning the skills of officiating here through USA Hockey

Since I came back to Europe, I have spoken to a lot of officials from Hungary, Austria, Romania, Croatia, and told them that everything I know about officiating ice hockey I learned at USA Hockey national camp and from Matt Leaf during those two World Championships that he was my supervisor. The conclusion is clear; I would recommend USA hockey camp 100-percent to everyone.

USA Hockey: Any final thoughts or shout-outs you'd like to give?

I am from Serbia, a little country where ice hockey is not popular and quality is so far away from that in the U.S., but I love it and I will give it my best to try to get a chance to officiate in the USA. It looks like that my dream will come true in the upcoming season. Everything I have achieved so far is a solid proof that everything is possible and that you should never give up on your dreams, no matter how impossible they seem to be.  Just try it. It will be a great experience and you will be so happy if it happens.