By Don Stewart
READING, Pa. – Twenty of the most hated men in hockey were skating laps en masse, creating a herd of on-ice zebras that was almost more fitting for Animal Planet than ESPN.
Showing surprisingly good stamina, the assembled referees and linesmen skated through conditioning drills for more than a half an hour with little rest. They clapped and barked words of encouragement at each other as if they were a hockey team with striped jerseys.
It marked one of the few times this year that they weren’t booed.
The practice was part of the annual ECHL on-ice officials camp, held last weekend in Reading. Due to this year’s sweeping rules changes, the camp held more intrigue than previous versions.
ECHL director of officiating Gord Broseker (pictured), the guy who officiates the officials, typically dreads preseason camp. He was actually excited this year, though, thanks to the challenge of adapting to the standards implemented by the NHL last season.
“This is a pretty monumental year for the ECHL,” said Broseker, a former NHL linesman. “So when you come into a camp like this, you really don’t know what you’re going to get.
“I was ecstatic with what we accomplished. The response, the input that I got from the officials, was positive. I’m very confident that we can stay the course. We are going to stay the course. We have no choice.”
The new standards were designed to open up the game in the post-lockout era.
For example, sticks are now for shooting and scoring only. Any attempt to use them to do anything else, including impeding other players, will result in two minutes in the box.
The “new hockey,” as it’s called, requires quicker defensemen who can skate hard to get body position. It’s also a nice lift for quicker, more skilled forwards.
“You have to remember what it’s designed for to let the talented players play, to show and demonstrate their skills,” ECHL officiating consultant Bryan Lewis said. “It’s a better game and flow.”
The officials were in the classroom studying the new standards for more than six hours Friday, all day Saturday and for a few hours Sunday morning. They were shown a five-minute overview DVD so many times that many of them could lip-sync it by Sunday afternoon.
“We need to see the new standard,” said referee Nygel Pelletier, a New Hope, Bucks County resident. “It’s better for us, for the transition, to see it before we implement it.
“As hard as it is for the players, it takes a lot more courage for us to stand up in front of 5,000 or 6,000 fans, in front of 40 hockey players and two coaches, and try to call a penalty that nobody understands.”
Each official received a copy of the DVD, titled “New Standard. New Vision. New Game.” They were also given a homework assignment memorizing all 252 pages of the ECHL rule book.
The league fines officials for misinterpreting the rules. Supervisors grade them on a rating scale and monitor how many penalties they call.
“If we have an official who chooses not to operate under this system, we’ll find someone who will,” Broseker said. “We want to be the best we can.”
None of the officials who attended last week’s camp want to suffer that fate. Most share the same goals as the players they officiate in wanting to eventually reach the NHL.
“It’s the same with officiating,” Pelletier said. “We wake up, we go to the gym, we travel, and we spend a lot of time in hotels away from our wives and families. It is the same as a player.”
Rod Pasma, the ECHL’s vice president of hockey operations, said the league has 20 full-time officials and 100 part-timers. The full-time guys have salaries similar to the players, who make a minimum of $330 per week.
“There is a majority of a part-time staff,” Pelletier said. “But everybody that’s here has a dream that’s come from hockey and loves the game.”
Thanks to the new standards, that game will have a much different feel at the ECHL level this season.
Fans shouldn’t expect to see too much five-on-five hockey in the early going. Broseker said it’s something the players, coaches, ownership and fans must accept, along with the zebras.
To help, the league has posted the DVD presentation online at echl.com for fans. Each team received a copy as well.
Sunday, the officials met with the Reading Royals before overseeing an intrasquad scrimmage. Broseker, Lewis and Pasma conducted a town-hall style meeting for fans later in the afternoon at the Sheraton Reading Hotel.
“The ECHL is doing everything they can to educate everybody,” Lewis said. “There should be no secrets, but there should be a buy-in from everybody.”