Click HERE to access the Stripes Newsletter website.
USA Hockey’s national tournaments are the pinnacle of competition for thousands of youth and adult hockey players nationwide. Coaches, players, family and friends gather annually each spring at locations scattered across the country as USA Hockey pits the best against the best to crown a champion at multiple age levels for girls, boys, women and men alike.
But none of them step on the ice without the game’s unsung heroes, the women and men in stripes who are charged with maintaining the safety, fairness and integrity of each game. The referees and linesmen are certainly not in it for the accolades; they do it because they love the sport and want to ensure it’s played the right way.
For officials, the national tournaments are every bit the zenith of competition at the youth level as they are for the players and coaches. Only the best of the best officials are selected and the honor of representing their district, state and local associations is similar in weight because of what it takes to get there.
“If you want to get to a national tournament, you’ve got to put in the time and you’ve got to put in the effort,” says Kevin Cassidy, a New Prague, Minn. native. He worked his first USA Hockey national tournament in 2010 at the age of 22 when he was chosen to officiate the Junior A tier 3, Junior B, and Junior C National Tournament held in Marlboro, Massachusetts where he worked the Junior C national title game.
“That starts with USA Hockey's educational material, which is very good, even at Level 3, which would be the most basic level that they would allow a linesman to work a national tournament,” Cassidy said. “When you step up to Level 4, you're with the best and you're willing to put in the time required.”
Cassidy’s officiating journey began at the age of 14, following in the skate strides of his father. What began as a means to stay connected to the game and make a little money blossomed into a career which led Cassidy, 33, from youth hockey to high school to juniors to the NCAA and, ultimately, the pro ranks.
Included in the Level 4 certification requirements are a skating test and a challenging closed-book exam. “I can't sit here and say that I passed every single Level 4 exam I took,” Cassidy said. “The closed books are hard, so you’ve got to know the rulebook.”
Once that benchmark is reached, officials can begin to apply for national tournaments and work with their district supervisors to assist them in achieving their goal by notifying them of their interest.
After certification and advocation comes evaluation and that, Cassidy says, comes from working games and executing on the ice over the course of the season resulting in what hopefully culminates with: recommendation.
The local supervisor evaluates an official’s performance and, if merited, passes on his/her recommendation to the state referee-in-chief whose endorsement is required for the application to move on to the district and national level.
Rocky Mountain District referee-in-chief, Ken Reinhard, says he is on the lookout for officials who are committed to the program and work hard.
“I only ask five things from my officials in the district,” Reinhard said. “That they be professionals, that they know the rulebook and apply it to the best of their knowledge each and every time out, that they hustle, that they treat disrespect with respect and that they have fun. If they're doing those five things, chances are they're going to be a pretty decent official.”
Sarah Buckner says the two biggest challenges a national tournament poses for her are skating with and learning the on-ice nuances of officials she’s never worked with before and the positioning of working a system she’s not accustomed to. The Duluth Minn. native says she rarely gets to skate in the three-official system with one referee and two linesmen outside of national tournaments, which she says requires an adjustment.
“Especially the first game or two, just getting reacquainted with that system, especially as the referee, with quite a bit more skating up and down the ice,” Buckner said. “But just kind of remembering your basic conditioning and the skating lanes we should stay in, that’s always a challenge the first couple days.”
Buckner’s rise from entry-level officiating to working games at the national and international level has been meteoric.
Buckner competed at the Division-III level from 2012-2016 for Augsburg University in Minneapolis. After her senior season, Buckner turned her attention toward officiating as means to remain involved with the game.
She got her feet wet as an official working a limited number of games in the 2016-17 season and by the spring of 2018 was in Boston working USA Hockey’s Senior Women’s National Tournament. Buckner met several nationally and internationally experienced officials who made a lasting impression.
“I definitely took on the, ‘I'm going to be a sponge and learn as much as I can,’ kind of mindset,” Buckner said.
After working the 2019 Girls Tier I National Tournament in Anaheim, Buckner attended USA Hockey’s Elite Officiating Experience that summer where she earned her international license, which she later put to use working a tournament in Mexico City. Most recently, Buckner returned from Lake Placid where she worked the National Women’s Hockey League’s bubble season.
“Here in Minnesota we have quite a few higher-level officials who have skated a lot of international stuff and are now on the supervising side of things for different leagues,” Buckner said. “They definitely helped point me in the right direction and got me introduced to the right people and, you know, got me on the right path to do some pretty cool stuff, fairly quickly.”
Cassidy, a St. Cloud State graduate who is currently the Ice Arena Manager at his hometown New Prague Area Community Center, says the challenge of working at the national level comes down to how he measures up against his peers.
“When you get there, you're with some of the best officials that USA hockey has to offer,” Cassidy said. “And that's USA Hockey’s goal, to provide the best officials that they can possibly get so the national tournament goes off well, and that starts with really good teams and it starts with really good officials.”
As the teams battle it out in search of a national championship for all to see, a far more subtle competition unfolds right in front of their eyes but without knowledge and fanfare.
“We work together on the ice and, you know, everybody wants the same outcome as a crew,” Cassidy said. “But at the end of the day, everybody's going there wanting to work the national championship game. It’s no secret.”
While it may be no secret to those charged with keeping the games safe and fair, most of the competitors and fans are likely oblivious to the tournament within the tournament taking place amongst the women and men in stripes. Officials are constantly being evaluated throughout the tournament with the top performers chosen to advance deep into the tournament and, ultimately, to the national championship game.
“Those experiences, and the memories that I have leading up to that point and then being on the ice I'll never forget,” said Cassidy, who has worked three national championship games. “That's why we go there, we work really hard to get to those points and try to be the last crew.”
Cassidy says knowing that’s what he’s skating for has served as a driving force in expanding his knowledge of the rule book and improving his on-ice abilities, his communication skills and his confidence.
“You're learning from extremely experienced officials,” Cassidy said. “Not only from the evaluators and supervisors, but you're also learning from the guys in the room, the guys that you're working with.”
Buckner agrees with Cassidy on the educational and development aspect but sees an added benefit to the championship environment.
“You meet new supervisors as well, so you get lots of feedback, good coaching, different perspectives on the game and, you know, how your conditioning is,” Buckner said. “And then the hockey is usually really good too. It's super intense, everybody's there to win and they want to play hard.”
Additionally, both Cassidy and Buckner raved about the social aspect of the experience that comes with creating and rekindling friendships via their strong common bonds.
“I've made some really great friends at all the different tournaments I've been at and now I've been to multiple tournaments with the same group of people,” Buckner said. “I have friends out in California, Colorado and Montana and then I have friends on the east coast in the Boston area, so it's really cool to get to see everybody again.”
Cassidy added, “I was fortunate that I got to go to a couple national tournaments, both with friends from Minnesota. Looking back on it, I always can give one or two of them a good ribbing or conversation about our time spent in Michigan together.”