By Chadd Cripe
The Idaho Statesman
BOISE, Idaho – Jason Rollins’ vigilant eyes swept the Qwest Arena ice one Friday night in February as he skated among the mayhem that is a professional hockey game.
Twelve pairs of knife-like skate blades.
Twelve muscle-bound bodies, 10 of them constantly in motion.
One iced rubber missile – er, puck – bouncing off the glass, walls and bodies.
And two angry coaches shouting complaints from the bench.
It is a hostile environment – particularly if you’re wearing a black-and-white striped sweater with orange bands on the sleeves.
That makes you the referee – the one guy nobody in the arena likes, except maybe the two linesmen assigned to help you.
“You’ve got to keep your head on a swivel,” Rollins said. ” Anticipation is a big thing.”
Rollins is an ECHL referee, assigned to work about 70 games a year. He is joined by two linesmen, often local talent used on a part-time basis to keep travel costs down.
In Boise, attorney Paul Fitzer and engineer Scott DeBaugh work the lines at many Idaho Steelheads games.
DeBaugh took a puck in the arm nearly three weeks ago. He still has the welt to prove it.
“It’s intense and dangerous, but still a lot of fun,” DeBaugh said.
Hockey officials take verbal abuse from coaches, fans and players. They can absorb punches while trying to break up fights. And they are always on the watch for stray pucks, which can send them to the doctor for stitches.
Mike Pearce, an official for 15 years who is now a supervisor for the ECHL, suffered a devastating knee injury a little more than a year ago when Steelheads player Colin Shields lost an edge and took out the referee’s knee.
The damage was so bad that Pearce’s ligaments were replaced.
“Those guys are warriors,” Steelheads coach Derek Laxdal said. “These guys are well-conditioned athletes.”
Referees skate end to end, chasing the play to watch for penalties and goals. Linesmen spend most of their time between the blue lines, but also have the most dangerous assignments – breaking up fights, dropping the puck for face-offs and watching for icing.
Many hockey players try officiating at some point.
Even Laxdal, who has a checkered history where officials are concerned, tried officiating games as a teenager for extra money.
“Now that I think about it,” he said, “I probably ought to give the referees a little more respect. … I’ve gotten better lately. I haven’t thrown sticks this year. I’ve thrown one water bottle. My early days in Wichita, I was throwing the five-gallon jugs on the ice.”
Antics like those fall in the pet-peeve department for Rollins, who tries to communicate with coaches throughout the game to let them know what he sees.
He doesn’t have a clearly defined line not to be crossed, but he does have a simple rule.
“I’m not going to allow anybody to show me up,” he said.
Keeping everyone happy is, of course, impossible.
“That’s like their own team,” Steelheads forward Lance Galbraith said. “They’re never right.”
Staying safe is slightly more doable.
Players and officials communicate during the action to make sure they don’t run into each other and players try to keep their dump-ins – maybe the fastest-moving pucks in the game – away from the linesmen.
Sometimes, though, accidents happen – like the puck that drilled DeBaugh.
“They’re just trying to read you,” Steelheads captain Marty Flichel said, “and sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing yourself.”
Officials wear light armor. Rollins’ gear includes a helmet/visor, elbow pads, shin guards and a padded girdle that covers the thighs and tailbone. Some linesmen wear padded T-shirts, too.
None of that helps when the gloves drop. Linesmen are responsible for breaking up fights, scrums and shouting matches – and sometimes the peacemakers get hit with haymakers.
That’s another hazard.
THE REFEREE: JASON ROLLINS
Jason Rollins picked up a whistle for the first time when he was 12 or 13. His dad asked him to officiate a youth game.
“I went out, I got a little brown envelope with 10 bucks in it and I was hooked,” Rollins said.
Now 33, Rollins is one of 12 full-time ECHL referees. He has been a league official for 10 years and a full-time referee for seven.
Rollins lives in Salisbury, N.C., with his wife and 3-year-old son and doubles as a mortgage consultant. He works most of his 70 games a year in the East, but occasionally gets sent to the West Coast.
“I’m pretty much guaranteed to work every weekend,” he said. “A lot of games, I’ll drive home after the game. But at least once every month I’m away for a weekend.”
Referees make about $225 per game on average, Rollins said, plus expenses. That’s roughly $16,000 for a full season, so it’s not a get-rich job.
The New Brunswick native played high school and junior hockey. Along the way, he worked his way up the ranks as an official — often working at a higher level than where he was playing.
“The passion for the game I guess just keeps you around,” Rollins said.
He has given up any dreams of working in the NHL — a goal of many ECHL referees. If the call doesn’t come by age 30, it is probably not coming, Rollins said.
But promotion was never his sole motivation.
“I knew where I stood,” he said. “Nobody was really blowing my phone up saying, ‘Where can we come see you?’ ”
THE LINESMEN: PAUL FITZER AND SCOTT DEBAUGH
Paul Fitzer figures he has the “best seat in the house” for Idaho Steelheads games at Qwest Arena — even though he never sits down.
Fitzer, 37, a Boise attorney by day, is an ECHL linesman by night.
And he’s not alone.
Scott DeBaugh, 38, an engineer at Micron, also puts on the striped sweater at night.
They are part-time linesmen who only work Steelheads games, part of a league plan to develop linesmen in each city and cut travel costs.
Fitzer has been working for the league for four years. DeBaugh is in his first year. They are the only linesmen in Boise.
“A lot of local guys have tried to crack this nut and weren’t able to do it,” said Mike Pearce, an ECHL supervisor of officials and former referee who relocated to Boise six years ago. “These are kind of my chicks under the wing. It makes me feel good that they’ve gotten this opportunity, and hopefully they do well with it.”
Neither linesman grew up in the formerly ice-deprived Treasure Valley. Fitzer is from New York; DeBaugh is from Chicago.
Coincidentally, they both moved here in 1997 — the year the Steelheads began play in the West Coast Hockey League. They officiated local hockey games before they were plucked by the ECHL.
The ECHL has about 80 linesmen and would like to have about four per city, especially in isolated cities like Boise. The league still rotates outside linesmen through town for variety.
Linesmen are not only responsible for calling offside and icing, but they’re in charge of breaking up altercations and dropping the puck on face-offs.
Linesmen also can call penalties that involve injuries and goals that the referee doesn’t see.
“We’re asking our guys to come right out after working eight hours and perform at a fairly high level,” Pearce said.
The local linesmen make $117 per game, they said.
THE SUPERVISOR: MIKE PEARCE
Mike Pearce worked as an official for 15 years and is a familiar face at Qwest Arena. He was a referee in the West Coast Hockey League and ECHL until suffering a nasty knee injury last season.
Now he’s a supervisor, traveling the ECHL’s Western rinks to review the performances of on-ice officials. He also serves as a buffer between angry coaches and the officials.
Pearce moved to Boise six years ago, after meeting a woman while working a Steelheads game. He’s one of nine ECHL supervisors.
“I lived in league apartments for 10 years,” he said. “I was all over the U.S. I couldn’t stand it.”
Bryan Lewis, the ECHL director of officiating, asked Pearce to become a supervisor last summer. Pearce accepted, knowing the jobs are hard to find. He had the ligaments replaced in his damaged knee and could have returned to the ice, he said.
“As much as I miss it, I’m still involved,” he said. “I still get to go to the arenas. I still get to interact with the fellas.”
THE DIRECTOR: BRYAN LEWIS
Bryan Lewis, the ECHL director of officiating, worked more than 1,000 games as an NHL official and spent 12 years as the NHL’s director of officiating.
He is trying to turn the ECHL into a developmental league for officials just like it is for players. Eighteen former ECHL officials currently work in the NHL.
The NHL has scouted ECHL officials at more than 50 games this season, Lewis said. Last season, the NHL scouted just a handful.
“Our role is to produce officials for the National Hockey League,” Lewis said. “To us, it shows our recruiting is going the way we want.”
The ECHL has 12 full-time referees and 12 full-time linesmen. The emphasis is on young, up-and-coming prospects. The staff is augmented with part-time referees who work in other leagues and part-time linesmen scattered across the country.
Many of the full-time officials live in league apartments in California, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Florida — helping the league save money.
The officials attend a preseason training camp, just like the players, and are frequently evaluated.
“We are constantly at these people,” Lewis said. “We want them to be the best they can possibly be.”