The United Kingdom isn’t exactly known as a hockey hotbed. While the game has been played there since the beginning of the 20th century, and Great Britain captured the bronze medal at the 1924 Winter Olympics and the gold medal in 1936, professional hockey did not come on the scene until the founding of the Superleauge in 1996, followed by the Elite Ice Hockey League in 2003. Other sports, such as soccer, rugby and tennis, have a much-larger following in the UK.
Despite the lack of the popularity of the sport in the United Kingdom, there are individuals attempting to make a career out of hockey. One of those is first-year ECHL referee Liam Sewell.
Sewell grew up in Hull, a small town about 200 miles north of London. Hull was home to the Hull Stingrays of the EIHL from 2003-15, but faced stiff competition from other sports in the area.
“Hockey in my area of the UK isn’t as big as it is in some of the bigger cities, such as Sheffield and Nottingham,” he said. “The Stingrays always had a small following due to having to compete with football (soccer) and rugby, which had much bigger fan bases.”
Even with the limited exposure to hockey in his hometown, Sewell says he was drawn to hockey from an early age.
“I was hooked the moment I watched my brother, Matthew, play,” Sewell said. “I remember thinking about the speed of the game and I knew that I needed to at least try and learn how to skate.
“I always played both football (soccer) and hockey when I was younger, but because hockey wasn’t as popular in Hull, I quit at a young age to play more football. When I was 14, I decided I wanted to start playing hockey again, and it didn’t take very long to get back into the swing of things because I never stopped skating.”
That reintroduction to hockey was the impetus for Sewell pursuing his officiating career.
“When I decided I wanted to play hockey again, my dad thought it would be a great idea to go in the footsteps of my older brother Philip, who was officiating in the EIHL at the time,” he said. “I had my heart set on concentrating getting back playing again, but I was sold on giving officiating a shot. I did both for a little while but when I knew I'd have better opportunities in officiating, it was an easy decision to continue it full time and I've never looked back.”
Sewell is in his 11th season of officiating. The first six of those were spent in the United Kingdom, working youth and junior hockey as well as EIHL games. This is his fifth season working in the United States. Prior to joining the ECHL staff this season, he spent the previous four seasons with the USA Hockey Officiating Development Program.
His time with USA Hockey included a stint with the United States Hockey League, where he was selected as one of the referees for the 2017 Clark Cup Finals. Additionally, he earned an assignment for the 2018 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship Division I Group B in Lithuania.
Sewell, who is the first native of the United Kingdom to serve as an on-ice official in the ECHL, does not take that distinction lightly.
“When I first started my journey in the US, I never thought I'd be given the opportunity to skate in the ECHL,” he said. “It is an honor and a privilege to be a part of the ECHL's officiating staff and I'm very grateful for the opportunity to work in the league.”
“We are excited to have Liam working for us this season as I feel the ECHL presents the best opportunity for him to develop as an official,” said ECHL Manager of Officiating Mike Pearce.
“Liam has made great sacrifices leaving the UK in pursuit of a career in officiating. Having spent four years working in the USHL and SPHL, and now this season getting the opportunity to work in the ECHL and be supervised by both ECHL Officiating Development Coaches and NHL Officiating Managers will certainly benefit him in his officiating career,” Pearce continued.
Sewell is also hopeful that this extensive experience will lead him to becoming the first UK referee to be hired by the National Hockey League.
“I know the NHL has, over the past couple of years, looked to hire officials out of Europe. We've seen Marcus Vinnerborg from Sweden, who was the first European to be hired into the NHL and more recently Evgeny Romasko from Russia. But, no one from the United Kingdom has ever reached the NHL.”
Based on his dedication to his career to this point, one shouldn’t put it past Sewell to become the first on-ice official from the UK to reach the NHL.