At around 4:45 a.m. on Sept. 6, Kansas City Ice Center General Manager Dean Nelson was sound asleep when his phone rang. It was the arena’s maintenance manager, and what he had to say jolted Nelson awake: A series of small explosions had shaken the maintenance garage in back of the facility, blowing the door and a wall toward the arena.
It was the first cold night of the fall, and the building’s heating system had automatically kicked in. A gas leak caused the explosions in the garage, which ignited some fuel tanks stored there. The building, added in 2014, was just 25 feet away from the main structure.
“My initial reaction, of course, was hoping everyone was safe,” recalled Nelson, who also serves as hockey director for the Kansas City Youth Hockey Association. “My next [concern] was to the property.”
It took only a few minutes for Nelson to arrive on the scene. What he saw was sobering. While the arena sustained little damage, the garage had burned to the ground, along with trophies, pictures and other maintenance equipment. The KCYHA was gearing up for its annual Try Hockey for Free Day Nov. 4, to introduce new young beginners to the sport. Equipment that was intended for the event was also lost in the fire.
“I saw the video [of the destruction],” said Tom Tilley, an investment banker and KCYHA’s president. “It was surprising that it did not cause more damage than it actually did.”
Once the initial shock wore off, Tilley, along with the association’s program director, Mary Helmick, swung into action to replace the equipment. Helmick reached out to representatives from USA Hockey, who enlisted help from the National Hockey League. Tilley, who played in the NHL from 1988 to 1995 with the St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks, placed a call to his friend Kevin Maguire, president of the alumni group for the Toronto Maple Leafs. With Maguire’s help, the NHL Players Association also pitched in.
The effort paid off, as 100 sets of hockey gear, including skates, sticks, jerseys, helmets and bags were donated. The importance of the response wasn’t lost on Tilley.
“All three entities deserve a huge thank-you,” he said. “When you’re a small market like this, you can’t miss an opportunity to introduce kids to the game. The big concern was, if we don’t have any equipment, we can’t host an event in the fall. That could cause us to lose an entire age group in a year.”
Tilley credits USA Hockey’s Try Hockey For Free program for helping KCYHA evolve into one of the top five markets in the country in terms of participation.
“Literally within an hour, we’ve got kids who could barely stand up that are making a pass, and in some cases, getting up and down the ice,” he explained. “To me, it’s the easiest way to get a child into hockey. Give them the basics on how to use your edges or what a skating stride looks like … You can see a lot of progress that makes them want to do this.”
In three years as president, Tilley has also seen his association develop in other ways. When Lamar Hunt, Jr., son of the late Kansas City Chiefs owner, bought the ECHL’s Kansas City Mavericks in 2015, youth hockey in Kansas City was divided into several separate associations. Through Hunt’s involvement, the groups merged into one organization, which allowed USA Hockey’s American Development Model to flourish there under one umbrella. The merger also optimized budgets and the system of educating coaches through a single infrastructure.
“Through listening to people and sitting through meetings, this unification process became a top priority,” Hunt told the Kansas City Star in 2015. “You start to build those youth programs, from the participation level to the elite. There’s a thirst for growth here. We’re providing the outlet.”
Tilley calls Hunt “the Switzerland of the unification process,” pointing out the difficulty in convincing multiple groups to join forces.
“Anybody who tries to unify youth hockey most of the time [sees] their organization splinter,” Tilley explained. “What Lamar helped do was bridge the trust gap.”
Saving the Day
The KCYHA Try Hockey for Free Day ended up being a success, according to Nelson. Nearly 100 kids registered, and over 80 attended. “It was a huge relief to us, because it’s one of the main feeders to our hockey program,” he said. “If we get 80 kids in, we usually get 25 percent of them to sign up for the learn-to-play-hockey program.”
With the perseverance the KCYHA showed through recovery from its fiery setback, there’s every reason to believe that trend will continue.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc
USA Hockey volunteers and staff gathered in January for the organization’s annual Winter Meeting. This year’s Winter Meeting was a “legislative year,” meaning the organization focused on USA Hockey operations versus game/playing rules. Officiating is always a hot topic, and, with the recently formed Officiating Taskforce set to provide new recommendations, this year’s meeting was no different.
The Taskforce, chaired by Keith Barrett, vice president of USA Hockey and chair of the organization’s Youth Council, was formed in 2021 with the intention of bringing together USA Hockey members to explore concerns in the current youth hockey officiating environment, and to work together to formulate a comprehensive plan that addresses both the immediate and long-term issues in attracting and retaining officials in youth hockey.
It’s no secret in the hockey community that challenges exist when it comes to officials.
On the positive side, recruiting remains strong, with more than 28,000 officials registered for the 2022-23 season, one of the highest levels of all time. The job of the Taskforce and all in the organization is retaining these officials into their second year and beyond, as many face obstacles such as challenging personal schedules, verbal abuse from coaches, parents and players and slightly rising registration fees.
Dave LaBuda, USA Hockey National Referee-In-Chief, is one of the members of the Taskforce, and felt the group’s recommendations – shared in the form of a whitepaper – were both highly anticipated and well received.
“It was a very productive meeting,” said LaBuda. “Our recommendations weren’t incredibly radical. They were things we’ve been discussing for a long time and the Taskforce vetted and then put in black and white. We put forward the items we believed would be reasonable for the affiliates to pursue and put into practice.”
Included in the whitepaper were a variety of recommendations the Taskforce hopes USA Hockey affiliates across the country will consider and implement at some point starting next season.
According to LaBuda, here are the key topics discussed during the meeting:
Updated Officiating Education Program materials – “The program is doing a complete review and update of all of our educational materials starting by registration level. For this upcoming season, the Level 1 material presented at our seminars (which includes both virtual/online and in-person portions) will be implemented during the 2023-24 season and then in each following progressive season, Level 2 will follow in ’24-25 and Level 3 in ’25-26. All materials will be updated and new methodology will be incorporated. It’s a major change with regards to the education program.”
An established, and paid, group of virtual seminar instructors – “USA Hockey will now have an established group of virtual seminar instructors. They will be responsible for producing or participating in all of the virtual seminars presented by the organization. The in-person portion, at least at Level 1, will be handled by local staff on the ground. Those involved will receive stipends from the national office for their time and efforts in educating our people. That’s something that has never happened before at the national level. We acknowledge and appreciate all that they do so it's only appropriate to give them some type of honorarium.”
Full-time staff hired to support the program – “We also hired another full-time staff person for the Officiating Education Program and hope to hire another person in the not-too-distant future. These roles will enable staff to get out in the field, interacting with the local officials.”
Established a Taskforce subcommittee – “We also discussed the establishment of a Taskforce subcommittee, with a mandate to follow up with USA Hockey affiliates about what they are doing in terms of the implementation of Taskforce recommendations. That subcommittee is in the initial process of organizing and getting a game plan together, as to how they will support, monitor and evaluate how affiliates are progressing.”
Expanding official mentoring programs – “Most of the affiliate representatives there saw the immense benefit of the mentoring program, and a majority of them said they would like to implement something like it within their area of responsibility. It’s not easy, it requires affiliates to step forward and say we’re willing to do this, then directing some resources of manpower to get it off the ground. But those who already have had mentoring programs said it has had a positive impact on retention.”
Other key discussion topics included parent education programs (concerning at-rink behavior) as well as more stringently enforcing the zero-tolerance policy. Another change announced at the Winter Meeting that impacts officials was a change to the current rule change cycle. Moving forward, rule changes will be adopted at the Winter Meetings in January, every four years, in an effort to be more thoughtful, with more time (from January to the start of the next season) to review the new rules and educate officials, coaches and all involved.
“I think as a program, we’re in good shape,” LaBuda said. “We have the support of the entire organization and to be honest, the crisis that COVID brought on everybody has actually prompted better planning and communication within the hockey world. The challenge is to keep that going.”
Billy Hancock has been a USA Hockey certified official since 2006, and over his career has patrolled the ice for youth, adults, amateurs and pros on the local, national and international stages. However, in his current role, as USA Hockey coordinator of officiating, he may have an opportunity to make his biggest impact yet – this time, off the ice.
It’s no secret that the world of officiating, in hockey and across the sports landscape, has faced challenges in all aspects of the role. As coordinator of officiating, Hancock supports USA Hockey’s determined and ongoing effort to enhance the experience for referees.
“My role is to work closely with local affiliates and districts around all aspects related to officiating,” said Hancock, who most recently served as a linesman in the 2022 Olympic Winter Games and also officiated the 2021 and 2017 IIHF U18 Men’s World Championship, 2019 IIHF Men’s World Championship and 2018 IIHF U20 World Championship. “I’ll be the boots on the ground, so to speak, for our national office, whenever assistance is needed. The bulk of my job is to recruit and retain new officials at all levels of amateur hockey.”
Hancock shared his thoughts on how USA Hockey has and will continue to support local official groups and youth hockey associations, in developing officials and creating a more positive environment at our nation’s rinks.
USA Hockey: Has anything surprised you about the job so far?
Billy Hancock: I’ve been an official since the 2006-07 season, and I knew a decent amount about how the process works within USA Hockey. But I didn’t realize just how big the office truly was until I walked through it, and met all the people in different departments, from the coaching side to the foundation and more. And you see how hard the organization works to try to bring everyone together. It can be challenging but I believe we’re improving that and building good working relationships.
USAH: What challenges do you see when it comes to the current state of youth hockey officiating?
BH: The biggest and most obvious thing is the abuse we see from coaches, players and parents, and them not being penalized. We try to tell all of our officials in our seminars that we have a rule book, let’s defend it. The problem is, we have a number of younger officials. Fifty-one percent of our officials this year are Level 1s and the majority of them are under the age of 18. So, it’s hard to tell a 16-year-old kid, go penalize a 40-year-old coach. It can be intimidating to stand up for yourself and have that confidence. We’re working to improve our mentor practice and shadow program, someone that helps you out for your first season, and says, ‘hey how was your first game, have you had any issues?’ And, if that official has an issue during a game, he can call his mentor and say ‘how could I handle this next time?’ Some areas in the country do a great job with this and others don’t. We want to improve that with assistance from USA Hockey.
As far as shadowing, that’s about having someone on the ice that follows you around, tells you where to stand and how to call a penalty, for the first 2-3 games. They can provide guidance on how to handle being abused, how to handle a game report. There are many things you can do with it.
USAH: What are some things you’ve noticed that are going well or you could point to as already improving or successful?
BH: The development program we have in terms of education going from grassroots all the way to the top, has been great. The development camps are phenomenal. Nobody else in the world has the programs we do to develop officials. I think USA Hockey also does a good job of showing our officials how to get to the next level.
USAH: How can USA Hockey work on a grassroots level to better support officials and make an impact at the local level?
BH: We are already taking steps to improve the Coaching Education Program curriculum, which is a big start. This season for the first time we’re doing rules questions in coaching seminars. A better understanding of the rules can only help with respect for one another and improve the relationship.
We also need to do more work with coaches and officials to help them communicate better with each other. That starts with our seminars for officials. You may have a 35- or 40-year-old coach talking to a 16-year-old official. They need to understand that they’re talking to a child not an adult. For the officials, it’s a very unique situation because even though you might be 16 or 18, you’re still the superior person on the ice and the one in charge of the game. But you need to learn to talk to that adult in a proper way and vice versa. We have had a tendency, for a long time, that coaches, players and parents are on one side of the island and referees are by themselves on the other side. We need to find a way to say listen, all of us want what’s best for the game, and merge all together.
As an organization, we will look to do more traveling out to local rinks and do presentations, about what it’s like to be an official and what’s our goal on the ice, and discuss that with coaches, players and parents. We should have local referee-in-chiefs meeting with affiliates, meetings with associations, get them all together and make it a face-to-face thing.
USAH: What can local associations do on their own to grow their pool of officials?
BH: The simplest way to bring in more officials in is to start advertising it. In the same way that we approach advertising to players with Try Hockey For Free and Learn to Skate, we should appeal to people to be referees. That also includes advertising on association’s websites.. Then, they could have local meetings with speakers, whether it’s me or someone in the local hockey officiating community. We always joke that Rochester, New York is the linesman capital of the world. We’ve had a number of officials come out of that area and work some really high-level games. We have so many American officials that have come out of big and small markets that have gone on to work Division I hockey, the Olympics. Telling their stories and a showcasing officials at the local level is an important step as well.
USAH: How can we grow the number of female officials in the sport?
BH: As we need to for officiating in general, we need to do a better job of getting the word out to female skaters who may be interested in officiating. For example, if we engage players when they are still playing, a start to talk with them about the opportunities that are available to them in the officiating world, it would help spread the word. I think one of the biggest challenges is that female players or those who may be interested in being a referee think there aren’t as many opportunities for them as there are for men. But there’s more opportunity than they think.
We’ve also been striving to create new roles within USA Hockey for officiating education. We now have a female referee in chief, Krissy Langley, who hosts a monthly call called Whistle Talk and talks with high-level female officials across the country about what’s working, what’s not and what we can do better. We’re also doing a mentoring program with local female officials. There has been progress, but we still need to do a better job of communicating and giving young players the chance to get on the ice, blow the whistle, see what it’s like to be an official and get them signed up.
USAH: What are the most important things to do to create a positive environment in the rink?
BH: I think it starts before they get to the rink. Coaches, and maybe even players, should take a walk in a referees’ shoes and see what it’s like to ref a game, maybe go through the seminar process, just learn what it takes to become an official. We also need to enforce a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to abusing officials. It could be having a parent monitor in the stands, who steps up for officials. Again, it comes back to a better understanding of and communicating respectfully with each other.