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Full Nelson: The journey of a 20-year NHL linesman

By Evan Sporer, 10/02/17, 4:00PM MDT


Thor Nelson looks back on 20-year NHL linesman career

It was 1991 and Thor Nelson was at the USA Hockey Officiating Development Camp in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Sitting in a room with other referees, one by one, the attendees began sharing their experience.

“When they got to me, I said, ‘OK, I’ve been refereeing for one year,’” Nelson said with a laugh. “My dad gave me the best advice when I was young. He said, ‘Keep your mouth shut, and your ears open, and you’ll learn something.’”

Nelson may have been a newcomer then, but the coming-of-age moment didn’t make the green referee look out of place.

“The first day I thought, maybe I kind of don’t belong here,” Nelson said. “And then after I got on the ice, once you get out there, I was a good skater. I was a d-man all my life so backward skating was never an issue. I really enjoyed it.”

Climbing the ladder
From that regional camp, Nelson continued to mature and climb the refereeing ladder peg-by-peg, and rather quickly. In 1993, he caught the NHL’s eye at another USA Hockey Officiating Development Camp. He split time between the AHL and the NHL until 1997, when the NHL hired him full-time.

“I had a fantastic time,” Nelson said of his 20-year NHL career. “My body said enough. There’s a wear-and-tear on your body, and the better shape you’re in, the more you can endure of that.”

He retired with 974 NHL games under his belt.


Going places
Nelson played hockey growing up and even earned a spot on the University of North Dakota’s roster as a walk-on.

“And that was as far as my ability took me,” Nelson said. “I got involved as a referee to stay involved with the game.”

Nelson rose through the ranks, enjoying two decades as an NHL linesman that featured countless memories that he still cherishes today, including the 2004 NHL All-Star Game and the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, where he got to bring his family.

“In addition to those things, probably my two fondest memories are my first playoff game at Madison Square Garden, and then working the gold medal game in 2006 at the Olympics,” he said.

Improve your game
Nelson said one of the biggest keys to success in his career was a level head and the desire to get better at his craft.

“If you do the best job that you can, and then when you leave the rink, it’s over, and you learn from possible mistakes you made, or you learn from the situations what you have to do differently, and if you can take that and apply it to your game, then you’ll become a better official,” he said. “If you’re thinking you’re never going to make mistakes, and you never really work on improving your game, then it probably never will improve."

Giving back
After Nelson was forced to retire because of concussion issues, he wanted to give back to the refereeing community. He now serves as the North Dakota referee-in-chief and USA Hockey local supervisor of officials.

“That’s something so instrumental in having a successful sport, is that we have officials that are willing to help at the grassroots level,” Nelson said. “If we don’t, and some of those young kids that are starting out, they don’t get the support and the backing of an older or more experienced official, a lot of times they lose interest."

“I love the game. I truly do.”

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