TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – When thinking of the Traverse City Prospects Tournament, it’s easy to picture the development and the fight for contracts and roster spots for the next generation of hockey superstars. However, there is another group also in play for very similar reasons: the officials.
When you think of hockey officiating crews, you may just think of the men and women in stripes, making calls that either make our day or break our hearts. Very rarely do we think about the years of dedication and the path it takes for the officials to make it to the pros.
Where is one place officials start in their quest for a long pro career? The ECHL. There, officials are a vital part in developing the next generation of talent for both the American and National Hockey League. One stepping stone in that development is the Traverse City Prospects Tournament.
Developing an Officiating Crew
For the ninth consecutive tournament, the officials out of the ECHL are working the games here in Traverse City.
For ECHL Manager of Officiating Operations, Stephen Thomson, this tournament helps him get his feet under him for a busy season quickly approaching on the calendar. He is responsible for both the selection and scheduling of the officials for each game while also assisting in any playing or rule situation that may take place.
Usually, a crew of 16 officials makes the trip to the Traverse City Prospects Tournament. However, this was narrowed down to a crew of eight (four referees and four linesmen) this year as the tournament has a smaller pool of participating teams due to COVID-19 restrictions and concerns. This year’s crew includes referees Logan Gruhl, Sam Heidemann, Trevor Wohlford, and Jack Young, along with linesmen Chad Fuller, Bryan Gorcoff, Matt Heinen, and Kirsten Welsh.
Now, this Prospects Tournament is just one of the bigger tools in his arsenal to develop, educate, and bond with the newest crop of ECHL officials.
“It’s a good bonding opportunity for myself to get to know the staff,” he said. “Normally, we try to bring some newer officials, but also some veterans, who maybe haven’t had the opportunity to experience Traverse City. It’s pretty special if you haven’t been up here before.”
He also works in conjunction with the NHL to designate some officials from the yearly NHL Officiating Exposure Combine in Buffalo, New York. This combine helps leagues identity the up-and-coming officiating talent. Tournaments like this one are just one more way for officials to get some more eyes on them, as well.
The Traverse City Officials Development Camp
While battles are going on the ice for NHL and AHL roster spots, the ECHL officials are going through what can best be described as a development camp.
The process for the officials here at the Prospects Tournament is very similar to the one the young players in attendance will see. First, they start by getting their invitations. Then, when they get here, they all stay in the same hotel, go through team-building activities, have dinners together, and, of course, go to officiate all the games here at the Prospects Tournament.
The goal is to build camaraderie early on in the season for these mainly new officials. Thomson tries to pair everyone up with different partners as the week progress. After all, just like every player has a different style, each official has a unique style of their own. Though the rule book is hard-set, officials need to work with many different partners to see varying styles and get comfortable calling a game with different partners.
“This is- and I tell the officials the same thing- one of the most fun weeks out of the year. Very few times in a year, no matter what league you work, can you get a group together and get to do things. When you come up here, you are with a large group of your peers. You get to stay in the same spot and do a bunch of team-building activities.”
For Thomson, now in his fourth year in management at the ECHL, this tournament helps build a rapport with his officials. He wants to create that sense of trust between him and his officials so that he can reach his ultimate goal of making each of his officials better.
To do this, each will be paired with a rotation of other officials and be assigned to work as many different matchups as possible throughout the tournament.
Though, this week is mainly about learning and having a bit of fun while doing so. Ken Wheler, Officiating Manager for the NHL, is also present. Wheler is here to help Thomson make adjustments, if needed, between periods and help the officials get their feet underneath them for the upcoming season.
“It’s Long Overdue”
One special story out of the 2021 Traverse City Prospects Tournament is female linesman Welsh. She’s the second female linesman in the league and is making her debut here in Traverse City.
Two years ago, Kendall Hanley broke the proverbial glass ceiling and started skating as an ECHL official. Both Welsh and Hanley actually worked the Elite Women’s 3-on-3 event at the 2020 NHL All-Star Game in St. Louis. They got their break out of the NHL Officiating combine. After all, in the ECHL, it is about finding the best, according to Thomson.
“We just want the best officials there are. I think it is long overdue to have women involved. They’ve proven that their ability and talents are just as equal to the men. We’re all on board with that. At the end of the day, at the ECHL, we are about development: players, coaches, and officials. For a long time, women weren’t getting those opportunities. It’s long overdue. It’s a good environment where we are all here, and we can watch, observe, and, in between periods, teach.”
One great aspect of this tournament for officials like Hanley and Welsh is that it gives them more experience in calling the men’s game. If they’ve mainly called women’s games, there are some adjustments and differences that they need to learn.
It’s not necessarily the speed, but the physicality and the size that make up those natural differences. Hence, why events like this are so important for development for players, as well as officials.
“Bringing her up here and getting her immersed in the men’s game, right into the thick of things, in a prospects’ style is a great spot to start. Kirsten was at the Buffalo Officiating Combine, and she shined through as one of the best female officials there. We wanted to give her an opportunity to prove herself.”
No Preconceived Notions
In years past, there was, at times, a considerable difference in the style of the game played at the NHL/AHL and the ECHL levels. But, especially in the last few years, the leagues are starting to look more similar in their play, which is just one of the reasons why this partnership between the NHL and ECHL is so key for these officials.
Hockey all around North America is trending towards speed and skill. Sure, there’s a bit of toughness left there too. Sounds like I’m describing the officials as well as the players. Have you really watched the officiating crew during a game? Just watch how fast they have to be to keep up on the play; how tough they have to be when hit with a puck or a sprawling player.
When a tough and physical game is played, though, it’s up to the officials to read that and call the game as they see it.
“We don’t get the luxury of being in the locker room and hearing the game plan. So, we find out in the first couple shifts. Is it going to be a physical game or will they go for speed or crash the net? We try to identify those things early. You don’t want to go in with preconceived notions.”
Just like how a different team can play a different style based on their opponent, the officiating crews need to be flexible as well. Everyone adjusts and their job is to take each game as it is presented to them.
A Mutually Beneficial Relationship
The nine-tournament-long relationship has, in Thomson’s hopes, been a largely beneficial and enjoyable one.
“We take a lot of pride in being able to do it year after year. Obviously, I haven’t seen many other rookie tournaments and prospect tournaments, but this is a pretty special event. It always has been for myself. I was here as an official and now I’m here in management. The Wings are great. Centre Ice staff is great. They treat us special. They treat us as if we are just one of their own, which is awesome.”
For some of these officials, this will be some of the best hockey they will ever see. After all, there is a chance that among these players are the next superstars of the NHL. Just calling these games and adding a tournament hosted by an NHL team to their resume is a highlight all in itself.
“For us in the ECHL to be a part of something this large that the Detroit Red Wings put on, the respect we have mutually for each other, it’s really special.”
As the almost week-long tournament starts to wind down, the work doesn’t end for these officials. They will have two games each to work on Sunday and Monday. Then, it is off to gear up and get ready for the ECHL season which begins on Thursday, October 21.
As we closed our time together, Thomson shared his thanks and appreciation for both the Red Wings and the people of Traverse City and the host Centre Ice Arena.
“We appreciate Detroit for letting us come up, and hopefully they have the same understanding as we come up and do a good job.”
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