As part of USA Hockey's 80th Anniversary, we will shine a spotlight on the countless volunteers and instructors who spend time "Behind the Glass" to help our sport grow.
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When Mike Elam’s dad told him to find a job when he a teenager, Elam quickly knew what his calling was.
The Silver Bay, Minnesota, native started officiating hockey, and he hasn’t stopped since.
The 42-year-old has now racked up 27 years as a referee, everything from youth hockey to major NCAA Division I men’s games.
“I always wanted to be in the hockey world,” said Elam, who now lives in Forest Lake, Minnesota. “I was never going to be an NHL hockey player and I didn’t ever expect to be a college hockey referee either. I just did it. My dad saying growing up that I needed a job and I had a snowmobile and I could skate, so why not learn how to referee? Drive your snowmobile to the rink, referee a bunch of youth tournament games and come home. Have a great time.”
For his day job, Elam didn’t stray away from hockey either. He logged 15 years in the rink construction business before transitioning into being a rink manager in August 2014 at the Forest Lake Sports Center.
“It’s a good community, it’s a small community here,” Elam said. “It’s a suburb of the Twin Cities, but they still operate like a small town. I’m from northern Minnesota, and they operate like a small, northern Minnesota town.”
Now, Elam gets to work with youth hockey players and parents in a growing hockey community.
“I love being with the kids and the families,” Elam said. “Just being around youth hockey, growing up playing youth hockey and being back in the rink, I just love it.”
The Forest Lake Sports Center is run by the Forest Lake School District, so Elam works with the community education director and others in the district to come up with youth programs.
“If you try to do it all yourself, you’re not going to succeed,” Elam said. “You’ve got to work with a group — with each group individually to help them succeed. You just want to help them grow the rink.”
This year, the Forest Lake Sports Center was chosen as one of 16 rinks statewide to host the Little Wild Learn to Play Hockey Program. Kids 5 to 8 years old are taught how to play the game with the assistance of Minnesota Wild players.
Like USA Hockey has done throughout its 80-year history, helping get kids interested in hockey is one of the major focuses of Elam’s job. Currently, there are over 600 members in youth hockey program at Forest Lake.
“The major focus of hockey is recruiting and retention and making the game fun,” Elam said. “Let’s face it, hockey’s expensive. So you’ve got to get the kids interested and you’ve got to make it fun for them.”
Moving up the referee ladder
After starting out refereeing at the youth level, Elam moved up to college hockey in 1998. He worked NCAA Division III games before getting into Division I women’s games in 2005. In fall 2011, Elam caught a break and began reffing Division I men’s games. Now, he’s a regular on the ice for Western Collegiate Hockey Association games.
“If I didn’t referee, I don’t know what I’d do all winter,” Elam said.
Traveling is a big part of Elam’s referring career. He’ll get assigned to state WCHA colleges such as Minnesota State University, Mankato and Bemidji State, but Elam will also have to make frequent trips to Michigan and even Alaska.
“You have to have a wonderful family to do it, because you are traveling on Thursdays,” Elam said. “If you go to Fairbanks, Alaska, there’s a lot of times you leave on Thursday at 3 o’clock on a flight and don’t get home until 3 or 4 o’clock on a Sunday night. Everybody has a full-time job and you’ve got to go to work on Monday. You’ve got to have job flexibility, family flexibility. Without those two components, you can’t referee.”
Elam certainly has an understanding wife for all his time away. But having a 2-year-old son, it’s hard for Elam to be gone from home for too long. Elam’s wife, Tina Simonson, is a retired college hockey referee herself, so she knows the grind. Before the two were married, they got the opportunity to referee a few college women’s hockey games together. In 2013, Elam was a referee for the D-III men’s hockey championship game in Lake Placid, New York, while that same day Simonson was a linesman for the D-III women’s hockey championship game in Superior, Wisconsin.
Elam also referees high school games around Minnesota. He has had the honor of working nine boys state hockey tournaments — which is the premium state hockey tournament in the country — and four championship games.
“I love doing it. I love being on the ice,” Elam said. “I like being with the kids. It’s really rewarding. You feel like you’re part of some of these kids’ life that you’ve refereed. Some of these kids I’ll referee in Minnesota state high school hockey, then I’ll ref them in college hockey and I’ll see them put on a big sweater with an NHL logo on it. You feel like, oh, I’ve seen this kid develop and mature. There’s been a lot of kids you see as a young teenager playing high school hockey that you know has the talent if they can just figure it out. It’s rewarding to see these kids make it.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc