Earning their stripes

Hockey's future referees are learning the job from those who know it best.

Dave Smith (left) offers some advice to fellow linesman Cody St. Thomas

The visit to the bench caught John Nykiforuk’s eye.

Nykiforuk was watching from the stands as referee Andrew Falcone was asked by a head coach to explain a call during a major midget game between the Kootenay Wild and the Greater Vancouver Comets. When the officiating crew returned to their locker-room at the second intermission, Nykiforuk wanted to know what was said.

“When the stuff happened?” said Falcone. “He was just asking. I explained to him and then he was like, ‘Oh that’s bullshit,’ and I just skated away.”

Nykiforuk turned to linesman Cody St. Thomas, another young official in training. “This is our job as a linesman,” said Nykiforuk. “When things start getting heated and the coach isn’t listening anymore, and [the ref] has explained it, just skate in between and take your referee out. … Treat disrespect with respect.”

As the intermission drew to a close, Falcone, St. Thomas and veteran Dave Smith got up to return to the ice. Nykiforuk offered some final words of encouragement: “You guys are doing good out there. Blow that whistle harder.”

Nykiforuk, who has been a referee since 1985, was at the game Saturday to evaluate Falcone. The 17-year-old, a Grade 12 student at L.V. Rogers, is one of 16 junior refs in the Nelson Minor Hockey Association. He’s working on his Level 3 classification, the midway point to the level NHL refs are required to hold.

Nykiforuk has high hopes for Falcone, who has previously attended refereeing camps and works as a linesman in the KIJHL.

“He’s a great skater, he’s got a good feel for the game,” said Nykiforuk. “He’s one who we’re looking at. … What we do is we watch him, see how he handles situations and compliment him and how he can improve. Do this, do that.”

Nykiforuk put on the stripes for the first time when he was 36 and living in Dawson Creek to help his old-timers team make some money, but ended up enjoying officiating. The emphasis on ethics and sportsmanship, as well as watching players and officials develop on the ice, appealed to him.

His playing days were behind him anyway. “The mind knew what to do but the body was too old to get there,” he joked.

Now in his 60s, Nykiforuk doesn’t referee anymore but still helps out as a linesman during lower-level games where speed isn’t a necessity for the on-ice crew. He also acts as a mentor and instructor to Nelson’s refs in training, who minor hockey recruits as young as 12 years old.

The evaluation form Nykiforuk uses is extensive. Refs get rated on seven categories – appearances, skating, positioning, faceoffs, signals, judgement and awareness – that are each broken down into finer details. How, for example, does the ref react under pressure? Is his skating quick enough to stay with a play? How is his field of vision of the goal-line? Is his penalty calling consistent?

Even veteran refs get regular performance reviews. Fitness, according to Nykiforuk, is a ref’s most important attribute. Everyone notices when a old ref can’t keep up with the game. “There’s nothing worse than a goal scored and you didn’t get there to see it,” he said. “And all of sudden somebody is going to get mad at you.”

It won’t surprise anyone to read being a referee is an unforgiving job. It doesn’t pay well, the travel is difficult and then, of course, is the poor treatment from players, coaches and fans when a call doesn’t go their way.

“We’ve lost too many officials over the years because of disrespect, the words by parents, by other spectators, coaching staff, players, where the [refs] say, ‘Hey, it’s not worth it,'” said Nykiforuk, who tells his proteges to focus on the occasional compliments and ignore the negativity.

Falcone hardly needed encouragement after the game. During the third period he called a Comets’ penalty shot that ended up being saved by the opposing netminder. The game ends a 4-2 win for the Comets, and Falcone heads back to the dressing room buzzed about the moment.

“It’s a really exciting call,” he said. “I was pretty stoked to call it. We don’t get to call that call very often so it was awesome.”

Falcone and St. Thomas get some final words of advice before they leave and Nykiforuk returns to the stands to finish his evaluation. All referees, even ones as promising as Falcone, need to be held to a high standard. Nykiforuk knows no one watching a game will settle for less.

“There’s just a lot more than taking a guy off the street and saying, ‘Go out there. Here’s the whistle, here’s the stripes.'”

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