EAGLE RIVER, Wis. -- The best kept secret in the world of USA Hockey officiating -- that is until now -- is that working the Labatt Blue USA Hockey Pond Hockey Championships may be the best gig in the business.
It's not just that the work is easy, which most will admit it is, especially compared to officiating a typical game. It's also a golden opportunity to hang around with fellow officials from around the country in a relatively low stress environment in one of the most iconic settings in all of hockey.
"Most of the officials who have done this before don't want to give it up. It takes a lot for one of them to miss coming here," said Steve Tatro, the referee-in-chief for the Minnesota District who has worked each of the previous 11 tournaments.
"This is a great opportunity for some of our older officials who may not get on the ice anymore but still have good skills and great judgment."
In total there are 22 officials from 10 states, including some who came from as far away as New York and North Carolina.
Still, every once in a great while new blood is introduced into the fraternity. This time around it's a pair of seasoned officials from Alaska, Tim Zobel and Mike Ashley. The pair made the eight-hour flight from Anchorage and then drove four hours from Minneapolis to be here in time for the puck to drop on Friday morning.
"I thought I'd be the oldest guy here [among the officiating staff], but I'm actually one of the young bucks," said Ashley, who proudly points out that he's from "the real Eagle River" as he shows off a T-shirt from the Anchorage suburb.
Standing on the snow bank, officials main job is to determine possession of the puck once it leaves the ice surface, which it does with some regularity, and to rule on goals. Most adult players who regularly play in this tournament are in it for the right reasons. They're here for the fun, the camaraderie and to return to their roots when many learned the game on local ponds and lakes.
"Basically we try to stay out of the way," Tatro said. He means that both figuratively and literally.
"Most of the time the players police themselves," Tatro said. "They're typically pretty respectful and are here for all the right reasons."
Of course there are those who still act as if it's the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals and officials have to step in to keep the peace. But that's a rare occurrence out here.
"The temperature level is definitely dialed back, if you know what I mean," said Zobel, who added that the 30 degree temperatures were relatively balmy compared to what he left behind in Anchorage.
"These guys are serious about the game but they have the right perspective. They really make it an enjoyable environment."
Harry Thompson is the Editor of USA Hockey Magazine
If you think you’re in pretty good shape – or even if you know you’re not – it’s possible to step into, say, a touch football game or a casual softball game without completely embarrassing yourself or winding up on the couch for a week with myriad pulled muscles.
But if you want an honest assessment of your current fitness level, try jumping into a hockey game. You will get a splash of cold water – or better yet, ice shavings – on your face.
While it’s true that many adult hockey league players are perhaps primarily motivated by the camaraderie and enjoyment of the sport, the fitness benefit cannot be overlooked, says Kevin Universal, a member of USA Hockey’s Adult Hockey Council and the president of the Carolina Amateur Hockey Association.
Once you start, you don’t want to stop. But once you stop, you’ll feel it once you start again.
The beauty of hockey
A shift in hockey combines the controlled dash of a 400-meter race with the urgency of an even shorter race.
“There are perishable skills – the combination of having the short, sprinter-type lung capacity, then getting back for a quick rest and sprint up the ice over and over,” Universal said. “That’s challenging for a lot of people."
That’s why it’s important to keep playing, even if it’s just once a week. If you fall out of that routine, you will feel it.
“I think we have at least a handful of guys on my team who travel a lot and don’t have time to work out except for hockey,” Universal said. “That’s their one or two days of exercise a week, and it’s so beneficial. Aside from just hanging out and having fun, joking around with the guys, they’ll use that as a primary means of exercise.”
Other workouts don’t measure up
Unless you like to race the person next to you on the treadmill or try to beat yesterday’s distance on the bike or elliptical, there isn’t much true competition in gym exercises. That doesn’t mean you aren’t working, but you aren’t working the same way you are when you truly compete.
“Being a part of the game and having something on the line, it makes you dig a little deeper and makes you get into it more and get more benefit,” Universal said. “When you’re not doing that and just out recreationally exercising and trying to burn calories, you don’t get the benefit. I have friends that run or lift weights, but if they aren’t getting that type of hockey workout consistently, they feel it after games and you see it in their play.”
Universal notes a recent example to emphasize his point: a guy who had played on one of his teams a decade ago before moving away has just returned and started back in hockey a few weeks ago.
“He had regularly exercised at the gym, but he was so gassed the first four or five games,” Universal added. “He’s finally getting his legs back. It’s funny. He regularly works out, lifts weights competitively. It’s not the same when you have to go out and sprint.”
Never too late to start
That said, don’t let the conditioning learning curve associated with hockey be a deterrent. If you used to play and are trying to get back into it, it’s never too late. Same goes for adults who have never played before.
Universal falls into that latter category. He says he grew up playing street hockey, but he never played in an organized league on the ice until he was 34. He picked it up after his kids took up the sport and he “got the itch” when some other newbies convinced him to try a beginners camp.
“I regularly run into people as adults and I encourage them to pick up the game,” Universal said. “You don’t have to have grown up with it. You just have to have the desire, and you can have some fun out there and get fit.”
Now 48, Universal can’t imagine life without the sport in so many ways – with fitness being primary among them.
“I feel the difference. I feel the lung capacity and I’m able to work harder in other areas,” Universal said. “This past weekend I did a hike with a 1,700-foot elevation drop over 1.3 miles. That’s like doing 170 flights of stairs. My legs aren’t sore, and I attribute that so much to skating. I’ve tried lacrosse, football, track, swimming, baseball, and this is definitely by far the most beneficial workout.”