Hockey referee school trains officials to get work in international leagues

National Hockey League referees gather students in a huddle to teach them how to be better hockey officials.
National Hockey League referees gather students in a huddle to teach them how to be better hockey officials.
Ashley Bailey/KPCC

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Shane Warschaw glides across the ice with a whistle in hand. He’s leading dozens of student referees in black and white stripes through a series of sprints.

The ice beckons in August. This is when dozens of hockey referees travel from across the country to learn new tricks of their trade at the California Referee School. It happens over three days at the Toyota Center where the L.A. Kings practice in El Segundo.

Warschaw got his first paycheck as a ref when he was 11. He says it takes a special personality to enjoy a job where you get yelled at constantly by coaches, players and fans.

“We get booed no matter when we step on the ice, whether we make a call that’s right wrong or indifferent — we get booed. I think it’s the greatest thing in the world. It brings a smile to my face as bad as that sounds or as weird as that sounds,” Warschaw said.

Warschaw has a masters degree in business, but he says reffing is the only career he’s known, and he almost gave it up.

“I’m 32 now. Is this really what I want to continue, to live paycheck to paycheck, not own a house? It was tough. And this was actually going to be my last year," he said.

But Warschaw stuck with it. Now he refs junior league games six days a week and teaches officials how to improve their skating at the California Referee School. Former Montreal hockey official Michel Voyer started the school 23 years ago. With more junior league teams sprouting up, Voyer says there’s more demand for players and officials.

“More and more California kids, they get drafted by NHL now. We never saw that maybe 20 years ago. I think maybe one or two. Now, if you have three or four per year drafted, that’s not a surprise. So it’s the same thing for the referees. We need to get better because hockey’s better.”

Rick Looker, the coordinator of officials for the 28-team North American Hockey league, says referees have to look the part.

“Are they taking care of their equipment, their clothes? Do they wash their sweaters that they’re wearin’? Their laces — are they clean? They should be white," he said.

Looker is looking for a clean-cut official to be a full-time ref for a junior league in Detroit. He says a professional image builds credibility.

“If you go out there and you don’t look like you’re actually taking care of your own equipment, how is somebody going to believe you if there’s a 50-50 call? That’s what helps you sell that call," Looker said.

Looker watches the student refs from above the rink. They’re skating in a relay race carrying pink bouncy balls on their backs.

Jill Salvo passes a ball to her teammate. The 24-year-old from Seal Beach looks like a ref. Her golden blonde hair in a French braid, shirt tucked tight. She wants to ref men’s junior hockey, and work her way up to international games. She says she loves “ … the cold wind in your face when you’re flying down the ice, the sound of your skates digging into the ice, the anticipation, the high energy, there’s just nothing like it.”

Salvo says she’s been playing hockey since she was five, and she’s never been shy about the game’s physical and mental intensity.

“A lot of times coaches will argue out there ‘There’s two teams out here on the ice’ and I’m like, ‘No, there’s actually three teams. The stripes are a team, too,’” she said.

With a team of “stripes,” the referees follow the puck and call penalties. Linesmen make calls as they sprint from center ice to the goal box. They also break up fights, but Warschaw says they’ll let players throw a few punches first.

“Most of the time if you have two tough guys going at it, they’re going to let you know when they’re tired. They’re going to tell you OK, we’re done and they’re done. If someone has an unfair advantage, if someone’s getting hurt, someone’s not fighting back to protect themselves, then we have to step in and protect them because we don’t want anybody to get hurt," Salvos says.

Sometimes the refs take the punches. Warschaw learned that the hard way.

“I stepped in and my partner stepped in. He had his guy and his guy slipped up and threw a punch at the guy I was holding and actually hit me instead of the player and ripped me open across the eye for stitches. It’s one of my battle wound stories," Warschaw said.

Warschaw says getting a job in hockey is all about being seen. Someone saw him not long ago, and Warschaw got hired to ref hockey in Sweden. The Pasadena native starts later this month.

“You’re not going to get rich in the minor pro system. Or even junior hockey, you’re not going to get rich. If you’re going to make money, it’s when you make it to the NHL and you’ve paid your dues and you’re in the right to make that kind of money. It’s anywhere between 80, 90 starting. I’m probably on the low end on that side. It’s all worth it once you make it but very few make it," Warschaw said.

He says when hockey isn't fun anymore, he’ll know he’s done. But for now, he’ll keep living his childhood ambition, and break up a fight or two along the way.