GANGNEUNG, South Korea – The Olympic ice can feel like a lonely place when it seems like all sides are against you. That’s just how it is when you’re an official working on the biggest stage in the game. But when you have your best friend by your side, those odds don’t seem quite as bad.
Tim Mayer is used to the boos and cat calls that come with wearing stripes. He hears them 80 nights a year working games in the American Hockey League. So, to have former roommate Judson Ritter skating by his side makes his Olympic experience that much sweeter.
“To be here with Jud is really a special experience,” Mayer said after they stepped off the ice after working a quarterfinal game between the Olympic Athletes of Russia and Norway. “We’ve only worked only one international game together so if this was my last game to be able to work with Jud, it was very special.”
As good fortune would have it, Mayer received the call last night to work Germany’s stunning upset over Canada in the semifinals.
While they are reveling in their Olympic experience, they could only wish that their friend and former roommate Brian Oliver had joined them on this leg of the journey.
“We’re missing our brother, Brian,” Mayer said. “These guys are my best friends.”
The officiating community is a tightknit group, and for the seven USA Hockey officials who received the call to come here it’s been a bittersweet experience. It’s been a dream come true and a testament to all the hard work and dedication to their craft. But to know the disappointment felt by their closest friends and allies has somewhat tempered that enthusiasm.
No disrespect to those who didn’t get the call, but these are the best of the best, having put in so much time and effort to stand out in a role that calls for them to blend into the boards. Just like the players they’re watching over, these officials know that they wouldn’t be here without the support and guidance of many people along the way. And at the top of the list are members of the USA Hockey Officiating program.
“USA Hockey has provided us so many opportunities that go well beyond just the hockey,” said Ritter, who is also joined by fellow AHL linesman Fraser McIntyre from Amherst, N.Y. “That’s what is special about it. We’ve been blessed with so many life experiences that we would have never dreamed of if we had not had USA Hockey.”
Mayer knows that fans would rather see NHL players competing here. As a lifelong fan of the game, he feels pretty much the same way. But just like the players, he wouldn’t be here if the NHL made the trip.
“I understand the fans might have been a little disappointed but there have been so many great stories, from equipment guys to trainers to coaches to staff, general managers to players, it’s most likely that most of them would have never been given this opportunity if the NHL had come here,” said Mayer, who has four IIHF World Championships under his belt.
“I would not have been here because the North American representatives as referees would have been Canadians and Americans working in the NHL. So, I lucked out. I understand that a lot of people were disappointed but for a lot of us it was a great opportunity and I’m very blessed that they didn’t come.”
Working international games takes a little bit of brushing up on a slightly different rule book, and it takes a little getting used to the bigger ice surface. It may not seem like much but those few extra feet can make a big difference.
“There has been a little bit of an adjustment but I think the quality of hockey has been great,” said the Okemos, Mich., native. “It’s been entertaining, it’s been fun to watch and I am really impressed by the talent level that’s here. It’s been enjoyable to work.”
Despite the pomp and pageantry surrounding the Olympics, all these officials know they have a job to do once they drop the puck.
“The atmosphere is unbelievable,” said Ritter, who has extensive experience on the big stage having worked six international tournaments, including two IIHF World Championships. “I never thought I would have nerves at this stage in my career, but it’s hard not to when you see the cameras and that’s the ‘wow’ factor, the ‘I’ve kind of made it’ factor, just knowing that the world is watching.”
You couldn’t fault these guys for getting caught up in the moment, especially when you’re a lifelong Detroit Red Wings fan and Pavel Datsuyk is stickhandling through the opposition. But all these officials have been trained so well that they remain focused on doing the things that got them here in the first place.
“It’s a different game, more of a puck possession style game here. There’s not as much dump and chase, and it’s not as physical because there’s more room out there and guys get out of position if they try and finish a check,” Mayer said.
“Seeing the guys playing in small spaces, playing one on one with the puck is really fun to watch. Especially when you get [Ilya] Kovalchuk and Datsuyk with a little bit of room. We don’t usually see that working in the American league back home.”
As their Olympic experience is winding down, they can all return home knowing they represented themselves, their country and USA Hockey with pride. There will likely be little fanfare when they step foot on the AHL again, but they can do so knowing they’re among the best in the business. And no one can ever take that away.
“TV does a great job but they don’t quite do it justice as being here in person and experiencing it for yourself,” Ritter said. “I know that everyone takes immense pride in representing their countries and for Tim and me to represent the United States is pretty special for of us.”