Earning Your Stripes
By Jim Davis

Editors Note: This story is about an Atlanta Thrashers home game midway through the 2003-04 season. Some of the people mentioned have since moved to other teams or may no longer be  in the NHL.

 

6:15 p.m. Mike Cvic, who as of the end of the 2005-06 season had called more than 1,100 regular-season and Stanley Cup playoff games during his 19 years as an NHL on-ice official, muses, “I thought they’d be at one end of the rink.” He was referring to the luxury boxes stacked on one side of Philips Arena, home to the Atlanta Thrashers.

Cvic was in town to work the Boston Bruins-Thrashers game that night. It was his first game in Philips. “Now I’ve worked them all (current NHL arenas),” says the 6' 9" linesman who had spent the better part of the day dealing with a contractor finishing the basement in the Cvic family home in Calgary, Alberta.

Cvic and referee Denny LaRue stand rink-side about 25 feet from the officials’ locker room. A few minutes later they are joined by the other referee, Craig Spada, and the second linesman, Lonnie Cameron. All are dressed in a jacket and tie, as mandated by the NHL.

“He calls a real consistent game from game to game,” Cvic says of LaRue after the 15-year NHL referee leaves to find a Thrashers equipment manager to repair his helmet and install a new half-shield. “When he’s working it, you know how the game’s going to be called.”

Denny LaRue is not only the lone native Georgian among the NHL’s 77 on-ice officials, he’s the only one born south of the Mason-Dixon Line. He was born in the Hunter AFB hospital in Savannah, the first of Bob and Jackie LaRue’s five children. Bob LaRue is a retired U.S. Air Force non-commissioned officer.
LaRue grew up in Spokane, Wash., where he still makes his home. He played in the city’s youth hockey program and eventually for the Spokane Flyers team that won the 1980 Allan Cup, emblematic of the Canadian senior amateur championship.

6:25 p.m. The four-man officiating crew adjourns to the locker room. An NHL security official stands nearby, warily eyeballing anyone who pauses at the well-marked door as if to dare enter.

6:35 p.m. While LaRue and Cameron rub a grinding stone along the sides of their skate blades to ensure a good edge, an off-ice official knocks on the door and informs LaRue that the arena’s video replay equipment is operating properly.

The officials’ dressing room is actually three rooms painted blue and gray. The officials set up shop in the first room, which contains a TV and a large digital clock mounted on a wall, two tables, four folding chairs and an ice chest containing bottles of water and a sports drink. On the tables are rolls of tape and energy bars. The clock will begin counting down 45 minutes before the crew is due on the ice for the national anthem.
The middle room contains four dressing stalls, another wall-mounted TV and a stationary bike. There are two showers and a couple sinks plus toiletries in the third room.

The Bruins-Thrashers game is the second in an eight-game, 16-day trip that started in Dallas and will take LaRue to St. Louis, San Jose, Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Calgary and Vancouver. Linesmen often work two or three consecutive games in the same city; referees move on after one.

LaRue is enjoying an unusual two days off in Atlanta, giving he and Cameron time to spend an evening in the home of a family friend from his dad’s Air Force days in Spokane. LaRue also attempted – unsuccessfully – to line up a round of golf. He’s a low-handicap player. “I played in Dallas on Sunday, so I’m okay,” he says.

A veteran of almost 600 regular-season and playoff games as of the end of the 2005-06 season, LaRue and Spada, who has since completed his second full year as an NHL referee, work 74 games each in a season, coast-to-coast in both Canada and the U.S. The officials receive their game assignments monthly until late in the season, when they’re distributed weekly.

“In October and November we’re all excited and enthusiastic to work,” says LaRue of the long season. “When you get into the dog days of January and everybody’s been at for a while, it starts to wear you down, all the travel and everything. You have to challenge yourself to minimize your frustration level. After the All-Star Game, when the games get more intense, you kick it into second gear, then third gear and in April fourth and fifth gear.”

6:40 p.m.  As the officials pull their equipment out of their travel bags, the Thrashers’ assistant equipment manager arrives with LaRue’s helmet. LaRue asks him to adjust the shield so that there’s more space between it and his helmet for better air circulation.

Cvic applies a heat-producing ointment to his lower back, explaining that his back had tightened up after a hard session on a stationary bike followed by sitting and napping all afternoon in his downtown hotel. “I did two of those things today,” cracks Cameron. Before the equipment guy leaves, Cvic asks him to dig up a heat pad he can wear as he stretches and loosens up for the evening’s skate.

LaRue holds up his helmet and peers through the new visor. “No crosshairs (scratches) on this baby,” he says. Cameron quickly interjects, “You’ve got no excuses now, eh?”
Cameron is a Victoria, B.C., native who lives with his wife and their two small children in Vancouver. His 500th NHL game was one of 72 he worked during the 2003-04 season. The NHL assigns its 34 linesmen to games based on where they live. Cameron and Cvic, who reside in western Canada, for the most part work games in Chicago, Dallas and cities to the west of there. They’re likely to work seven or eight games together this season.

Cameron and LaRue followed different paths to the NHL. A goalie in Junior A in Estevan, Saskatchewan, Cameron attended a regional clinic in Victoria and spent a year officiating minor hockey games in the area. After attending the Western Hockey League School of Officiating in Calgary, he spent nine seasons as a WHL linesman, during which he was selected to work the finals of two Memorial Cup tournaments. He worked the 1994 Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, and was hired as a linesman by the NHL in 1996 at age 32.

“Now, the NHL can hire linesmen either on a full-time basis or 40-40 (split season between the NHL and American Hockey League). I bypassed the Binghamptons and Adirondacks and went straight to the National Hockey League,” says Cameron.
LaRue officiated youth hockey in Spokane as a teenager in order to work on his skating and put spending money in his pocket. In the early 1980s, after he had maxed out his potential as an undersized defenseman (he’s 5 feet, 9 inches tall), LaRue attended a USA Hockey referees camp and emerged as the top-rated official among 27 from the western U.S. Mark Randolph, the program director for officiating for USA Hockey then, outlined a possible career path for LaRue, who was married and had a four-year-old son.

He was immediately hired by the WHL and worked one season in the Junior A league. He then spent a year in the old International Hockey League as an NHL trainee, followed by a season working Western Collegiate Hockey Association games. After working the gold medal game at the 1987 U.S. Olympic Festival, he was selected to work the ’88 Winter Olympics in Calgary. LaRue rejoined the NHL trainee program in 1989 and was hired as a full-time official that year. His first NHL game was Boston at Quebec on March 26, 1991. “It was a good game to get because at the time the teams were in the same division, and games within the same division tend be more intense,” he says.


6:50 p.m.   Cameron sits on the floor and begins stretching while LaRue climbs on the stationary bike for 10 minutes. “Seinfeld” is on both TV screens, but there’s no audio and no one is paying attention to Kramer, Elaine and George. Spada reads his casebook, which is an NHL document that covers situations a referee could encounter, and Cvic goes into the corridor outside the officials’ quarters to jump rope.

6:55 p.m.   Spada lays down his casebook and begins stretching. Five minutes later, LaRue surrenders the bike to Cameron.
All the conversation is of the small talk variety. None of it is related to tonight’s game. “How much we discuss the game depends on rivalries or how recently the teams played each other,” says LaRue. “If it’s Vancouver and Atlanta, there’s not much history there. If it’s Edmonton-Calgary, then it’s the battle of Alberta and we have to be ready.”

Each official makes it his business to stay abreast of what’s happening around the league, on the ice and off it. They do so primarily by watching ESPN’s “Sports Center.”

LaRue, who flew to Atlanta 48 hours ago after working the Los Angeles Kings-Stars game the night before in Dallas, says he tried to get on an earlier flight. “The lady asked me if I’d already checked my bags. I said yeah. She says she can’t put me on another flight. She says that since 9/11 you can’t fly on one plane and your bags on another. I said, ‘Oh, yeah. Let me tell you a story.’ ” Bags and officials winding up in different cities are not an uncommon occurrence in the NHL.

7:08 p.m.   While stretching, Spada asks LaRue about the penalty for throwing equipment. LaRue says anything thrown from the bench is a bench minor. If it’s thrown or shot into the stands, it’s a gross misconduct. Spada follows up with a question about positioning.

The NHL employs eight or nine officiating supervisors. Half of them scout for potential professional officials. The others observe, coach and critique current officials. Referees are evaluated after every game, usually receiving an e-mail within 48 hours. (Each referee and linesman carries a laptop personal computer in his luggage.) Some of the evaluations are based on in-person observations; the rest via TV.

A combination of officiating supervisors and NHL hockey operations employees monitor all games on a wall of TVs in the NHL’s Toronto office. They edit clips that are either e-mailed to the officials or are available for downloading off the NHL’s server. Some are intended as evaluations, some as critiques, while others are purely informational and occasionally some are part of a poll. “In Pittsburgh a player threw a stick to another player whose stick was broken. This hardly ever happens,” says LaRue. “But the league polled us on what we ought to do about it. They wanted to make sure we’re all on the same page.”
Andy Van Hellemond, the league’s director of officials until the summer of 2005, used to meet with each of the supervisors in January and together they evaluated each official’s performance. The official received a copy of the evaluation as well as a rating versus other officials with similar experience. “The message is either keep up what you’re doing to get into the playoffs or you need to work harder to get into the playoffs,” says LaRue, who has worked as deep into Stanley Cup play as a conference final.
“I do a personal evaluation of myself after every game as a matter of pride. Did I do what was expected of me and what I expected of myself at the level I needed to be? Did I react to situations in a calm manner, or did I let the players or coaches get to me? You strive to be on an even keel and professional from start to finish.”

7:15 p.m. LaRue, Spada, Cameron and Cvic begin putting on their protective equipment, skates and black and white uniforms.

7:23 p.m. An NFL official comes in to inform LaRue that the fellow operating the game clock is doing so for only the fifth or sixth time. So be patient with him, the NHL guy says. Spada says, “We’ll break him in, eh?”
Cvic slips on his skates, a pair of size-15 monsters. “They’re great shot blockers, but they get in the way of face-offs,” he quips. LaRue: “They got in the way in Dallas, didn’t they?” He was referring to a couple of tumbles Cvic took three nights earlier in American Airlines Center.

7:25 Everybody’s laced up. LaRue surveys the official lineups and exclaims, “Oh, the Cat’s not playing tonight,” referring to veteran goalie Felix Potvin of the Bruins.

7:31   Cvic puts eye drops in his eyes, then the four of them head out to the ice. At the request of a photographer, LaRue is the last down the covered runway, prompting the NHL’s security man to shake his head and say, “I’ve never seen the senior guy go last before. Never.”
Preparations for this game and every other one LaRue will work this season began over the summer. After doing absolutely nothing related to hockey or conditioning for the first month after season’s end – “a complete shutdown,” LaRue calls it – he begins his conditioning program for the upcoming campaign.
In September, just before the start of preseason play, he and all the other on-ice officials gather in Fort Erie, Ontario, for a weeklong training camp of their own, run by the director of officials and his staff. Each official undergoes a complete physical exam and must meet minimum conditioning standards that include flexibility, weight and body fat limits and endurance.
During the week, any rule changes and points of emphasis are covered, and the officials view a video so they can see for themselves what the league wants. They also receive and discuss the officials’ casebook.
Twice a day the officials are on the ice to work on their skating, conditioning, positioning and handling of game situations.

First intermission   LaRue grabs a bottle of water from the ice chest, plops down on one of the folding chairs, pulls off his No. 14 jersey and wipes the perspiration from his head and neck. The clock on the wall begins its descent from 15 minutes. Cameron and Cvic also sip from bottles of water while Spada opts for a Powerade.
The period ended 2-2 after a Bruins goal by Travis Green with 11 seconds left. “That was a bad goal they gave up at the end,” Spada says to no one in particular. “They should have kept the puck in. It was close, eh?”
LaRue, “[A Thrashers forward] swore he wasn’t holding that guy. I said if you weren’t holding, why didn’t you have your hands on your stick? I could see his arm around the guy. If you don’t let them do it in the first [period], they won’t be doing it in the third. He made no attempt to play the puck.”
LaRue fiddles with the channel buttons on the TV, searching for highlights from other NHL games. While doing so, he mentions a bodycheck Andy Sutton laid on Boston star Joe Thornton near the Bruins bench. “I asked him, ‘Did Sutton hit you high.’ He said, ‘Yeah, a little bit.’ “
Spada: “It wasn’t a hard hit.”
LaRue: “Yeah, if he’d hit him hard, Thornton would’ve whacked him.”
With seven minutes left in the break, a Thrashers representative sticks his head in the room to make sure the officials have everything they need.
The officials proceed to talk about various players, particularly those who do a lot of griping on the ice. Says Spada, “They’ll come out for the second period and say, ‘I watched the video.’ We say, ‘We watched the video, too.’ Hey, they don’t know we didn’t.”
The NHL has no rules against fraternization between officials and players, says LaRue. Still, there are few opportunities during the season for the two groups to socialize. Most NHL clubs charter airplanes for road games, so they’re airborne soon after a game ends. When teams have games in their own arenas, the players are either at home with their families or out with friends.
It’s different during the off-season. LaRue says he’ll run into players at hockey camps and at charity golf and softball tournaments. “It’s a chance to shoot the breeze with them, and the league doesn’t frown on that at all,” he says.
Three minutes before they’re due on the ice again, LaRue pulls on his jersey, clears his whistle, puts on his helmet and stands up. “Let’s go, boys,” he says. Cvic and Spada touch knuckles before heading out the door and passing beneath the protective canopy to the ice.
The second period passes uneventfully. Cvic and Cameron have to separate jawing players a couple times, but there are no fisticuffs. LaRue and Spada call one penalty: holding on Atlanta’s Frantisek Kaberle 2:15 into the period. No problem for the Thrashers. Captain Shawn McEachern scores a shorthanded goal to put Atlanta up 3-2. The Bruins rally on goals by Michal Grosek and Mike Knuble to take a 4-3 lead into the locker room.

Second intermission
   As the officials exit the ice, LaRue tosses a puck to a girl in the stands, only to catch grief from a man nearby who wanted one for himself.
In the locker room, they repeat their routine from the first intermission. “Did you see (Thrasher Ilya) Kovalchuk that one time? It was like he had the puck on a string,” says Cvic. LaRue: “I saw him here last season go end-to-end. I thought they were going to tear this place down.”
After a few minutes, they turn their attention to the NHL scoreboard on ESPN. The Detroit Red Wings’ 6-1 lead over the visiting Anaheim Mighty Ducks catches their eye for a couple reasons: One, the heavily favored Red Wings were swept in the first round of the previous season’s playoffs by the Ducks, and, two, this game marked the return to Detroit of Sergei Federov, who had spent 13 seasons with the Wings before jumping to Anaheim as a free agent over the summer. “You think they wanted to play tonight?” says Spada.
Cameron spots an ESPN headline reporting that the Red Wings had placed high-priced goalie Curtis Joseph on waivers. “Who’s going to back up (Manny) Legace with (Dominik) Hasek hurt?” LaRue asks.
As the digital clocks dips under one minute, the officials climb to their feet. “All right, boys,” says Cameron. “Let’s put ’em to bed.”
The Thrashers’ Marc Savard knots the game at 4-4 in the first minute of play, but Boston’s Martin Lapointe scores midway through the period and Rob Zaumner clinches the win for the Bruins with an empty-netter.

10:05 p.m.
   Back in their locker room, the officials offer congratulatory handshakes to each other. Referring to the lack of penalties and rough play in the game (there were only three penalties, all on the Thrashers), Spada says, “I only put my arm up for one and Denny went and called it.” “You cut him off at the pass,” Cvic says to LaRue. “What, did you think the camera was on you?”
Out of his gear, LaRue signs the game report for he and Spada and hands it to an off-ice official. He says it’s Cameron’s turn tonight to file the officials’ report on the condition of the ice.
After a shower, the four store their luggage in lockers in the arena and head to a local restaurant for a meal with one of LaRue’s friends in Atlanta. In the morning, LaRue and Cameron will fly to St. Louis for a game that night between the Red Wings and the Blues. Cvic is bound for Dallas and Spada has an airline ticket to Raleigh.
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