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