BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Ahead of the upcoming hockey season, I sat down with former Birmingham Bulls defensemen Caleb Apperson. Since retiring from hockey, Apperson has found a new calling on the ice – linesmen in the American and National Hockey Leagues.
To start the interview, I asked Apperson to tell me a little about how he got his start in youth hockey it was in his hometown of Kitchener, Ontario.
Apperson: Yep, born and raised in Kitchener. I was about seven when I played on my first team, and that got the ball rolling, and then I just played pretty much every year after that. So it was mostly AAA growing up. Then I played juniors in Kitchener for a couple of years for the Dutchmen. Then, after that, I did one year with the Georgetown Raiders; then, I went to University.
Hayes: When I was looking you up, I saw a brief stint with a team called the Milverton 4WheelDrives. I have to hear about that, especially the jersey design. Was it a big lifted pickup riding through the mud?
Apperson laughingly said that was a Senior-A team. When I stopped playing junior, I was going to go on a scholarship to the states, but it didn’t end up going through, so I was out for a year and just played there because I knew a couple of guys on the team and played until I ended up at University. The sweaters had, I think, four tires on them.
Hayes: Five years at University; tell me about that experience playing hockey at the collegiate level in Canada.
Apperson: I played at Laurentian University, that’s in a city called Sudbury in Ontario. It’s about 4 hours north of Toronto. I ended up there by random chance, and they had a school program that had my interest at first, which is why I ended up applying there. The year I started going there was the year they started their hockey team back up, so we were the first team there. So I built some great relationships with guys, and it made going to school that much more exciting.
Hayes: What was it that you studied while you were there?
Apperson: It was a Bachelor of Science in Health Promotional
Hayes: Your last year playing at Laurentian, you were named captain of the team. Was that your first time with the “C”? Also, tell me a little about that season for you.
Apperson: I wore the “C” in junior, and for the Dutchmen, I was captain. I also had an “A” when I was in Georgetown. Leading up to getting the “C” at University, I wore the “A” for a couple of years there as well. It was a great experience; I learned a lot there, just trying to learn how to be a good leader and a good teammate. I think the guys had some fun that year. We faced some adversity throughout the year, but it was a year I will remember.
Hayes: After University, you moved on and landed in Birmingham with the Bulls. How did you end up with the Bulls?
Apperson: I had an agent who had reached out to Hickey (Jamey Hicks, former Birmingham Bulls bench boss), and Hickey took a chance on me because Graham Yeo and Charlie Millen, whom I played with at Laurentian with were both on the team. I came down on a tryout offer. I think I signed to play for two games off the start. It ended up working out, and I stuck around for the rest of the season.
Hayes: After that season with the Bulls, you headed down under and played hockey in Australia for the summer. Tell me about how that came about and how your time in the AIHL was.
Apperson: Yea, I had an opportunity there to play in Adelaide in South Australia. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I just figured it would be a cool experience and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be able to travel over there and play hockey. That is something I will remember for the rest of my life. It took two days to get there on a plane, and just jumping off the plane and skating right away was a fun time over there.
Hayes: How is the sport accepted over there, and what are the fans like when you’re out there playing?
Apperson: So, it’s not huge over there, but the fans they have over there are very passionate about the game. It’s growing. When I was over there, they were in the process of trying to grow the game. The people down there like the sport, though obviously rugby, football, and cricket are their sports, but they like the roughness of a hockey game. There were around five to eight hundred fans in our small arena. The bigger cities like Sydney and Melbourne had bigger arenas, and they had fans coming out filling the seats. I know COVID shut that league down for the past two years, but hockey was headed in the right direction when I was there.
Hayes: How much of an off-season did you have that year before starting back up with the Bulls?
Apperson: I think I came back home around the end of August, and then the second or third week of September, I went down to the Wheeling Nailers training camp for a week or two. Then I went down to Birmingham from there so, maybe about three weeks of an offseason.
Hayes: Your final pro year was the 18-19 season with the Birmingham Bulls; walk me through that season that ended up in the SPHL President Cup Finals for you guys.
Apperson: It was a great season, a great group of guys. We had a lot of success together; I think we set a league record for wins to start a season. We were kind of on a roll all year and then headed into playoffs; we got some guys back and had ended up playing Huntsville in the finals. Unfortunately, we lost, but overall that was a great year, and it was great to be a part of that team.
Hayes: What made you decide to retire from playing after that season?
Apperson: I was in a good place mentally after we had such a great year. I was just fine to walk away at 28 and ready to start the next chapter in my life. Ultimately that’s when I started focusing on officiating and making that transition. I just wanted to see if I could make a career out of it. I wanted to be able to make a career in the game and playing. I wasn’t going to be able to do that long-term.
Hayes: What made you decide to officiate over something like coaching?
Apperson: I had a friend I had grown up with that I played with and against in junior and University. He had actually gotten into officiating a few years earlier and had success with it; he signed with the NHL. So that’s kind of what made me think of it. If he wasn’t there, I don’t know that I would have even known to look into it. I contacted him and asked him how to go about it, then went from there.
Hayes: Did you jump right into officiating the next season?
Apperson: Yea, so what happened was the season ended in Birmingham. I applied to what is called the NHL officiating combine. They bring in current officials and, in my case, guys that are brand new getting into it. They bring you down for a weekend of testing and evaluation in Buffalo, NY, to see if they can turn you into something and work for them. It went well for me out at that camp, so the next season in September, I started working in the Ontario Hockey League and the American Hockey League for the teams in Ontario at that time, which was Toronto and Belleville. I skated those leagues from when they got started up until COVID hit around March. In Ontario, we were shut down for about a year with no hockey going on. We were pretty locked down up here, and it’s just kind of been a waiting game to get things going again.
Hayes: Tell me what you did to pass the time during that year of lockdown?
Apperson: Fortunately, at the time, I had another job that I was working full time in sales for a stainless steel/aluminum company in Cambridge. Other than that, I just focused on my training. Set up a little gym in my garage because gyms were closed down as well. So basically just worked, trained, and waited for the call to be able to get back on the ice.
Hayes: How was the transition from player to linesman? I mean, it has to be a bit of a culture shock going from a player who generally doesn’t care much for the officials to that guy in stripes on the ice.
Apperson: It’s been interesting off the start. You have to totally reprogram your brain to what you’re looking for on the ice and how you’re reacting, and what you’re doing. That first year I was probably so nervous about making the right call that I couldn’t even hear what the players were saying. After I got some more repetition and a little more experience, the game kind of slows down for you, and you get a lot more comfortable. As a linesman, you can build a solid relationship with the players. For the most part, you treat them with respect, and for the most part, they will show that back. Being a former player does help at certain times because you might understand what that player is going through and what they are thinking, why they are frustrated.
Hayes: Explain to me your role this year. I see you are listed as both an NHL and AHL linesman for the coming season.
Apperson: It’s called a minor league contract. I’ll spend my time between both leagues. There is no set number of games in either. They release your schedule one month at a time and whatever your assignments are is where you go to work, they will send you all over. So you might skate three to four games for the week in the same area and then the next week head out to the other side of the map.
Hayes: Moving forward, what goals have you set for yourself on this new path in hockey?
Apperson: As a new guy, I just kind of think of this as a trade, kind of like an electrician or plumber, and this is a new trade to me, so I want to fine-tune my skills. I want to be a good teammate working with the guys out there and ultimately skate as many years as I can. Realistically, the goal for me this season would be to work some playoffs in the AHL this year deep into the season and eventually work my way onto a full-time contract. Once I get there, the way to find success is to make playoffs and go deep into the playoffs, similar to a player. In the short term, though, it’s all about working on my skills and learning from the veteran guys out there.
Hayes: What’s the selection process to decide which referees and linesmen go onto the playoffs to officiate?
Apperson: Throughout the year you are evaluated, there are what’s called officiating managers who assess your performance in the games. So, if you’re making the right calls and doing your job well, you end up getting selected for the big games later in the season.
Hayes: Last question, what has been your most memorable moment to this point in your career in hockey?
Apperson: I think it would be tough to single one moment out. The biggest thing I take away from my years in the game is the friendships you make along the way. There isn’t anything you can compare that to. The brotherhood you get there from playing on teams with guys and even officiating now on the other side of the game there is another group of brotherhood there. I think that’s ultimately why I love the game so much is just building those friendships.
Be sure to be on the lookout for linesman #77 this season while enjoying AHL and NHL games.
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