Filling the Mental Toolbox


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I am currently on assignment in Finland, doing an officiating clinic. The other day, I was interviewed on television by the Finnish equivalent of Sports Center. I explained that my role is to help officials develop tools to fill their mental toolbox when they officiate games. I also discussed how, while there are adaptations for culture, hockey and hockey officiating are essentially the same at their core.

Whenever hockey people can get together and exchange ideas for the good of the game, I think it’s a positive. I am in the unique position of personally knowing NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, KHL president Alexander Medvedev, KHL chairman Gennady Timchenko, and IIHF president Rene Fasel. Each man sees things in different ways — and they may not all see eye-to-eye on some key issues surrounding our sport — but they all are fundamentally good men who have what they believe are the best interests of the game at heart.

Anything I can do to further that process is not just a privilege, it’s something I owe to the game that has been been life’s calling. That is true in all aspects of the sport, but especially the officiating side.

One of the main themes that I stress with the officials I work with — and also here on these blogs — is the importance of communication. Officials need strong communication among themselves. They need to communicate well with players. They need to know how to talk to the coaches. They also need to know when it’s NOT time for talk.

If readers gain nothing else from these blogs, I hope the one thing that comes through is that officials function as a team and that a good referee uses some psychology as well as his knowledge of the rulebook.

Having been in the locker room and on the ice as both a pro player and a referee, I can tell you that the communication dynamic and the level of reliance on one another is very similar among players and officials.

There’s a lot of homework that goes into the job before the opening faceoff is ever dropped at center ice. Officials do a lot more pregame prep than most fans — and even many players and coaches — ever realize. Apart from going over assignments, the referees and linesmen also share scouting reports and tendencies on the two teams and various players in the lineup.

Some examples of things that may be shared: Were there a lot of cheapshots the last time these teams played? Does this coach frequently try to sneak out an illegal line change? Does that defenseman give gratuitous cross-checks behind the play as his team breaks out of the zone? Should the official stationed nearest to the goal line be aware that Forward A loves to barrel into the goalie when he feels the slighest bump? Does Goalie G struggle to catch pucks cleanly with his glove, increasing the chance of a scramble around the net? Who are the agitators on both teams? Who are the notorious divers?

Of course, it’s impossible to discuss every possible game situation and it is just as bad to over-officiate a game as it is to under-officiate. The point I’m making here is that, just like the players, the officials try go in with as thorough of a game plan as possible. Depending upon the flow and events of the game, the official discuss adjustments on the ice and during intermissions and then work to enact them during play.

As with any team, officiating crews have good days and bad day. The skilled ones have a lot more of the former than the latter. There are some referees and linesmen who have instant chemistry, and others that take time to get in synch.

The goal is simple and black-and-white: Make the right call. The specific execution of that goal is not always that clear cut, but the tools for accomplishing it are universal.

************ Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.

Today, Stewart is an officiating and league discipline consultant for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the ECAC.

The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials. Stewart also maintains a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.

Stewart is currently working with a co-author on an autobiography.This post originally appeared on and we thank them for permission to rebroadcast it here.