Referee Camaraderie: Bloopers, 'Nerding' Out, Lots of Laughs Create Powerful Bond

By Pam Shebest
Special for

February 13, 2024

KALAMAZOO — When it comes to blooper highlights, four MHSAA hockey officials don’t hesitate to share their miscues.

Southwest CorridorOne of them, Bob Corak, even has his pratfalls set to music on an internet site called Zebras with Pucks.

Laughter is the sound of the day when the four gather every Tuesday after their yoga class at Nisker’s Char-Grill & Slap Shot Hockey Bar in Kalamazoo.

The camaraderie between Corak, Corey Butts, Nick Schrippa and Nat Swanson is evident, but the tone gets more serious once the talk turns to officiating.

“We’ve all played, we’ve all coached to some extent, but officiating is just what speaks to us,” Schrippa said. “That’s our niche.

“Every player on the ice has a fan in the stands. Every player on the ice has support on the bench. We’re the only support we have in the arena. We’re the only ones we can lean on. We’re kind of on an island.”

Most times the friends are part of different four-man crews made up of two referees and two linesmen for South Central High School Hockey League games. But that just gives them more to talk about when they get together on Tuesdays.

Schrippa makes a call.“We spend an hour every Tuesday with Bob’s wife (Susan) just kicking the crap out of us and then come to (Nisker’s) to debrief,” Schrippa said. Susan Corak runs Be Well Yoga and Fitness in Kalamazoo.

"We never talk about the workout. Somebody will bust out a phone and we’ll go over a video and we’ll talk about a situation, talk about rule differences,” he continued. “We are nerds to the nth degree, and that’s just how we’re wired.”

Yoga is a good way to keep in shape, the four friends agree.

“I’m a little older than most of the referees I meet,” said Corak, who retired after 35 years with Pfizer in information technology. "It keeps me limber, keeps me in shape to an extent, not a lot of cardio but the strength is there that we get from yoga, especially the core, plus injury prevention.

“If I’m not skating, I’m officiating or I’m working the books for the association (Kalamazoo Ice Hockey Officials Association).”

Corak assists in the scheduling, billing, etc., leading Schrippa to quip: “Remember when Bob said he did information technology? We take full advantage of that. He is, in fact, the glue that holds a lot of our shenanigans together. He really is.”

Referees vs. Linesmen

Butts and Corak prefer wearing the referees’ armbands, while Schrippa and Swanson like working the lines.

“’I’m a smaller guy,” said Butts, who has been officiating for 14 years. “Linesmen typically tend to be 6-foot-5. When you’re smaller than most of the players, it doesn’t work out well.

“I like the freedom to be able to get out of the way. It’s a high traffic area as a linesman.”

When not spending evenings officiating, Butts is the penalty box timekeeper for the ECHL Kalamazoo Wings home games. His day job as a third-party examiner for the state of Michigan means he gives driving tests, and that leads to some interesting conversations.

“I’ve given most of (the players) their driver’s licenses,” he said. “I’ve had a group of players in the middle of a high school hockey game, getting ready to drop the puck at the start of the third period, and they’re trying to schedule a driver’s test for the next day. I’m like, ‘Guys, not now. Talk to me after work.’”

Corak, center, confers with a group of players.Swanson is the newest of the quartet, moving to the area three years ago from Syracuse, N.Y., where he started officiating at age 11.

He is a pilot in the U.S. Air Force International Guard in Battle Creek flying MQ-9 Reaper Drones.

“I like refereeing better (than being a linesman) because I like managing the game and look at the big picture,” Swanson said. “Sometimes it’s great to be a linesman because they get to communicate with the players, crack jokes and sometimes throw the referee under the bus, ‘Yeah, I agree that was a terrible call. But you’ve got to move on.’”

All four also officiate college and youth hockey, which can lead to a dilemma.

“Those are all different rule books, so we don’t have to know just one set of rules,” Schrippa said. “None of them are what you see on TV.

“While we have a couple hundred people in the building who are yelling at us that we got it wrong because that’s what they saw on ESPN, that’s not how it works. So not only do we have to know the rules, we have to know the differences in the rules.”

With mentorship programs available, some current prep players are also officials for younger leagues.

“They’re learning, we’re teaching them,” Corak said. “We have games with them as officials, then we’ll officiate their games when they play for their schools.”

Swanson added: “I think that makes them better players because they understand the rules, where they can bend rules and where they can’t.”

Swanson prepares to drop the puck.That is what led Schrippa to officiating.

“(Late referee) Mike Martin was officiating a game and pulled me aside,” he said. “I was 22 years old and he asked if I wanted to become a ref.

“‘(Heck) you’ve broken all the rules,’ he told me. ‘You probably know most of them already. He wasn’t wrong. I talked to a couple friends who had done it, and they talked me into doing it 29 seasons ago. I fell in love with it.”

Fun with bloopers

All four laugh as they regale each other with their funniest and most embarrassing moments.

For Schrippa, it was the college game where he made his refereeing debut.

“I was given the rookie lap,” he said. “I was jazzed. I came out of the gate, turned left, went around the back of the net, got to the blue line, caught a toe pick and Supermanned, slid from the blue line to the top of the next faceoff circle and was soaked because the ice hadn’t set yet.

“I got a standing ovation from the few hundred fans that were in the rink. Both my linesmen were doubled over laughing. It was a very cold first period.”

Something similar happened to Swanson.

Butts monitors the game action.“I was taking a hot lap, not seeing they’ve got a carpet out for somebody, hitting the carpet and Supermanning,” he recalled. “Then having a linesman watch you do it as there’s a few hundred people in the stands and give a big washout sign.”

Butts and Swanson had moments that actually delayed the start of a game.

For Butts, “I forgot my pants because I washed them separate and my wife had to bring them to me, and we could not start the game until my pants arrived,” he said, while the others laughed and nodded in agreement.

Swanson actually found himself at the wrong rink one time.

“I’m like, ‘Where is everybody?’” he said. “My phone starts ringing. ‘Hey dude, game starts in 15 minutes. You going to be here? Uh, yes, in 20.’’’

The four agree most officials go through highs and lows, funny times and embarrassing times, and that’s one thing that brings them all together.

“What’s unique about what we do is I could meet another official from Sweden tomorrow who I’ve never met before, and within minutes we’ve already got that relationship,” said Schrippa, who is the Southwest Michigan communications representative for the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). 

“That’s something we all share, we all know that feeling, we all understand that bond and it just takes a second. It’s so neat, it’s powerful.”

Pam ShebestPam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS (Top) MHSAA hockey officials, from left: Nick Schrippa, Bob Corak, Nat Swanson and Corey Butts get together recently for one of their weekly hangouts. (2) Schrippa makes a call. (3) Corak, center, confers with a group of players. (4) Swanson prepares to drop the puck. (5) Butts monitors the game action. (Top photo by Pam Shebest;  following photos provided by respective officials.)

2024-25 MHSAA Officials Registration Underway

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

June 17, 2024

The MHSAA is accepting registrations online or by mail for game officials for the 2024-25 school year.

The MHSAA registered approximately 8,700 officials for the 2023-24 school year, an increase of nearly five percent over 2022-23 as the ranks continue to build back toward pre-COVID totals.

All officials who register may sign up for up to two sports as part of their registration. Officials also will receive membership in the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO), which comes with a variety of educational and training resources and the NASO’s Shield liability insurance that will provide $6 million in coverage for officials while they are working both MHSAA and non-MHSAA events.

For new and returning officials, a $70 fee covers registration for up to two sports. Officials may register for additional sports at $16 per sport.

To avoid a $30 late fee, all fall sport registration applications must be received by Aug. 19, 2024. Winter sports registrations must be received by Nov. 18 to avoid the late fee, and spring sports registrations must be received by March 24, 2025.

Online registration can be accessed by clicking here. More information about officials registration may be obtained by contacting the MHSAA by phone at (517) 332-5046 or by e-mail at [email protected].

There is an officials' registration test for first-time officials and officials who were not registered during the past school year, derived from the MHSAA Officials Guidebook. New officials and those who didn’t officiate during 2023-24 also must complete the online MHSAA Principles of Officiating course. Additional exams must be taken by those registering for football or basketball for the first time or those who were not registered for those sports during the previous school year. Links to the Officials Guidebook, Principles of Officiating presentation and the football and basketball mechanics manuals can be found by following the “New Officials” link on the Officials page of the MHSAA Website.

There also are opportunities to officiate for students at least 14 years old and in grades 9-12 through the MHSAA Legacy Program. Juniors and seniors may officiate subvarsity contests, while freshmen and sophomores may officiate contests at the middle school/junior high levels. Mentor officials will work events with Legacy participants to provide guidance and support. Find information on the Legacy Program by clicking here.