“What do You mean Andy Carson wasn’t available?!?”
27 year old Tom Darnell has been officiating ice hockey for 11 years and was referee for the first time in a challenge game between Milton Keynes Kings and the Solihull Blaze in 1997. Originally from Milton Keynes, Tom now lives in Reading, Berkshire where he works in marketing for the Yell Group. Tom spoke to Cat’s Whiskers editor Jono Bullard via e-mail.
Jono: Did you ever play ice hockey, and did this lead to you becoming involved in officiating?
Tom: I grew up watching the Milton Keynes Kings, the whole family got hooked on the sport. My brother and I started skating and once we could get around the ice without holding onto the barrier we joined the junior Kings. I was probably a bit too old to ever make it as a player, 12 or 13 I think, I was always quite realistic about my limitations as a player, but I ended up skating with the senior Kings team when they reformed in the 97/98 season.
Bob Bramah ran a level one officiating course in Milton Keynes one year and I went along, and that lead to me working some of the younger age groups games. I always enjoyed officiating the younger teams, and often thought that officiating might give me a chance to continue in the sport once I was done playing.
My first senior game happened by chance; When the rink in Milton Keynes reopened in 1997 my Dad took over the ownership of the Kings. It was a family effort, I worked on the team’s marketing and running the box office. It was the very first game of the season; a challenge game against our future bitter rivals, the Solihull Blaze. We had a few teething problems to say the least, the ticketing machine wasn’t working, we had almost 2,000 people turning up, a few of which I was trying to explain the ticketing problem to. And then, my Dad comes into the box office with our coach Mark Mackey and says “no refs have been allocated… We need you to do the game…” So I did, after which Ashraff got in touch and gave me games when I wasn’t busy playing. That ended up being my last season as a player, the following season I was invited to the Superleague/BNL training camp and spent my first proper season as an official working the lines in the old BNL.
Jono: What is the best and worst games you’ve officiated?
Tom: There have been so many great and memorable games over the years, my first BNL game (Solihull v Guildford; They definitely put me in at the deep end!) my first Superleague game, my first EIHL final, my first world championship game (China vs North Korea; they went out and literally tried to kill each other). But two games stand out in my mind as being the best; The first was the second leg of the challenge cup final in Cardiff in the 2005/06 season. Coventry had a 2 goal lead going into the game I think, but Cardiff were awesome in their old rink, two goals could be made up easily. I was working with Andy Carson and Lee Young, although I don’t think any fan or player would remember who was officiating. The players played, and we called what was necessary. That was an end to end game of hockey where two teams played their hearts out. Cardiff ended up tying the game with seconds to play in regulation and went on to win it in penalty shots. Absolutely amazing game.
The other game that stands out was in my third senior world championships in Eindhoven. I was at senior division one, my second time officiating that level. I had just officiated the Netherlands vs Italy, a pretty tough game. Later that night we had our daily meeting where we would be allocated our final day assignments, we all knew that the gold medal and promotion to pool A was between Italy and France, and they were to play each other on the final day. I was given the Italy v France game, a massive honour, and a massive game for those two teams. I worked with a Norwegian linesman and a Finnish referee. Italy won, and I have to say, we owned that game, no one had a bad word to say.
As for the worst games, there have also been a few, for various reasons. I was in Belfast when Manchester Storm played their last game, and I did London Racers last game in Cardiff. Both of those were terrible nights, you’re seeing two teams disappear from the sport you love, seeing their players and most of all their fans losing their team. As for the worst game from an on ice spectacle kind of way; I was officiating in both the Coventry v Cardiff and Coventry v London bench clearances over the past few years – they weren’t particularly nice!
Jono: Should a referee be noticed in a game?
Tom: Sometimes you can’t help being noticed, you’re there to do a job, if something needs calling, you’ve got to call it, however unpopular that might be. It’s not a popularity contest as far as I’m concerned. It’s two
teams (one just happens to be the home team!) and the stripey’s are there to make the right calls.
One thing officials shouldn’t do is go out of their way to be noticed; we should be going about our job in a professional way making the least impact possible on the game.
Jono: Do you think that officials get unfair criticism from the fans?
Tom: Not really no, the simple fact is sometimes we screw up, and the fans pay their hard earned money to come and watch their team play, as far as I’m concerned that gives you the right to have an opinion and voice it (within reason). But this is linked back to whether or not a referee should be noticed, we will always be noticed and receive criticism for throwing out the home team’s star player with 10 minutes to go in the third period, but unfortunately if that player warranted that penalty, then that’s what we’re there to do.
Here’s another example; In the Elite semi finals this past April, Ryan Finnerty picks up a long pass between the centre line and the offensive blue line quite near the boards. I move towards the boards to get out of his way and he happens to go the same way as me, we end up skating into each other and he loses the puck; there’s the end of his breakaway opportunity. Now I’m fully expecting some harsh words from players, the coach, the fans (and Ryan!) for that one and rightly so. We’re human, sometimes we get it wrong. However, we’re not wrong as often as some might think.
I would be a liar if I said it didn’t slightly annoy me when the defenceman fires the puck straight out of play and we’re getting jeered for giving him a penalty. That’s a black and white call, the easiest one in the book, but someone in the crowd is still going to direct his anger at the guys in the stripes. I guess that’s just part of being a ref. What I don’t tolerate is the abuse when we’re leaving the arena or rink and someone with a poor grasp of hockey is giving me the bird across the car park. That’s not on, but unfortunately it happens quite often. But what I always remember is that guy probably represents 1% of the hockey community. 99% of hockey fans are fantastic, I will quite happily stand in the bar all night and debate a call, I’ll stand my ground if I know I made the right call and I will hold my hands up and admit my mistake if I’ve made a bad call.
Jono: Who is the most abusive player/coach you’ve come up against?
Tom: I have to say, this league has a pretty good bunch of players and coaches. Every now and then a player or coach loses their cool, but every game is a new game and those incidents are long forgotten.
Players like Sylvain Cloutier from Coventry last year, Sean McAslan and Corey Neilson are a pleasure to be on the ice with. They treat the officials with respect and get that respect back in return.
Jono: How do you feel about a 2 man system? Do you think it could work in this country?
Tom: I’m excited about it, I think its a positive step for the Elite League. We as officials have got to work hard to make sure it works well, but I think it presents a massive opportunity for the league to promote a physical, but also a skilful game. I think that combination of hockey styles is what makes British hockey so exciting, it introduces elements of both the North American and European styles. Sure, we’re not the NHL and we’re not going to be, but we’re promoting a level of hockey that is both competitive and entertaining. The number of people I know who have never been to a hockey game but started watching Sky’s coverage last year was exceptional, and they love it.
The two referee system gives the game more of a chance to flow. It might take a few weeks for the teams (and the officials) to get used to that, but it will happen. The two referee system is not about penalising more players for throwing great body checks, it’s about penalising the winger who is illegally tying up the defenceman on the point who is waiting to unleash a one timer to the top corner of the net. It’s about watching for the nonsense that goes on behind the play that adds nothing to the fans enjoyment of the game. The other key benefit is the ability for both referees to be in position 100% of the time, an extra referee actually means we will be in the way LESS, not more, because we will not be chasing the play. One referee will be in the zone before the players arrive, on the goal line ready to make the decisive call, the other will be outside the zone watching the players off the puck.
Jono: Who wouldn’t you want as your fellow referee in a 2 man system?
Tom: My girlfriend Sarah! She knows the rules inside out and would probably show me up! The first time she met Nigel Boniface after a game at the old London Arena in the Superleague days, she informed him that he failed to call the netminder on a delay of the game penalty for freezing the puck beyond the hash marks. She was absolutely spot on! As for Nigel’s response? Well, I can’t repeat it!
Jono: How much training are officials given and what costs are incurred?
Tom: Things are changing for the better. The fact is the league has limited resources but does what it can. We now have Simon Kirkham as our supervisor, and what Simon doesn’t know about officiating isn’t worth knowing. He was Britain’s top official for many years and worked numerous international tournaments. In addition we have a top IIHF supervisor coming over for our training camp as mentioned previously. The referee also receives a DVD of every game they officiate and can review calls back at home. The Elite League pay for all our training and costs, and I’m certain if more funds were made available they would do even more for us.
What should be remembered is that all the officials work a day job, plus working up to three games a week, going to the gym, then reviewing DVD’s of games and of course travelling to and from games. If your lucky enough to be selected as I have been on five separate occasions, up to 10 days of your annual holiday allowance from work are spent officiating at a world championships each year. The point I’m trying to make is that the sacrifices are quite substantial, it all stacks up and makes for a pretty intense lifestyle, but one I wouldn’t change for the world.
Jono: What ambitions do you have as a referee?
Tom: From this season I will be wearing the orange bands a little more than previous years, that’s a goal I have wanted to achieve for a long time. I want to progress with my officiating, hopefully representing Great Britain as a referee at senior world championships, following in the footsteps of Moray Hanson and officiating at a Pool A championship would be an ambition, as would officiating the Elite League final as a referee.
Jono: Can you see a time when people will be queueing up to become hockey officials?
Tom: No, but there will always be someone crazy enough to give it a go. We desperately need more young officials coming through. I believe that all players from U16’s should be trained as officials, not only would it aid in their development as a player, but it might also give them the buzz it gave me when I was young, and if they don’t quite make it as a player maybe they will find a way to continue in the sport and sign up for the team in the middle instead.
I started working the Superleague three years after that first senior game where I was thrown in at the deep end. Progression to the top can be quick if you work hard and treat the sport with respect. Officials should be working just as hard as the players in every game.
Jono: Finally, who do you think will win the league this season and why?
Tom: I’m really excited about the league this year, the thing I love is that anyone can beat anyone on the night. The standout team for me is Belfast, and I think Corey’s built a strong team with some great Brits in Nottingham, but who knows. Anyway, the team in the middle wearing the stripey shirts always win, and that’s the team I care about most.
The Cat’s Whiskers would like to thank Tom for taking the time to answer all the questions put to him. Any comments about this interview can be posted at the bottom of the page.