Former Cardinal Mooney Coach Earns Breslin Return as Official
By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com
March 31, 2022
Jim McAndrews felt anxious and excited both times he was on the floor during basketball Finals weekend at the Breslin Center.
But those feelings were a bit different as an assistant coach at Marine City Cardinal Mooney in 2010 than they were as a referee this year.
“It was different because I was worried about myself (as a referee) versus having to worry about high school kids and not making a mistake to screw it up for them (as a coach),” McAndrews said. “This was a little less pressure than that. With refereeing, you kind of just worry about yourself.”
McAndrews served as the head official in the Division 2 Girls Semifinal between Grand Rapids West Catholic and Detroit Country Day on March 18. That Breslin appearance came 12 years after he was an assistant for his brother, Mike McAndrews, during Mooney’s runner-up run in Class D boys in 2010.
He also coached with his sister, Susan Everhart, who led the Mooney girls to the Semifinals in 2008 and a runner-up finish in 2009. Those tournaments ended at Eastern Michigan University, but all of them gave him a rare look at the experience from two very different angles.
“I wasn’t walking in blindly,” McAndrew said. “I think what helps me in my officiating duties is having been there and knowing what the coaches are expecting and what they need. I think that helps me to communicate things to them. Being (at Breslin as a coach) and seeing that helped.”
McAndrews has been reffing since leaving his brother’s staff in 2011. That ended a long run in coaching which started in 1989 when he was an assistant coach at Mooney under Dave Jackson. After one season in that role, he took over the program and coached the Cardinals for a decade. That included coaching his brother, who he would later coach with for another eight years.
It didn’t even take a full season for him to get back on the court, albeit in a different role, after leaving the coaching ranks.
“I missed the game,” Jim McAndrews said. “Refereeing gives you an opportunity to get your competitive juices going a little bit. You get a little exercise, and the relationships you get to make are amazing. There’s nothing like being in the gym and talking hoops with other like-minded people: junkies. Basketball junkies. It’s a community, and it’s a really good community. We all want good stuff for the kids, and we want to help out. Plus, I enjoy seeing the local talent.”
McAndrews, whose full-time job is in automotive supply sales, refs mostly in the Metro Detroit area and the Thumb, working games in the Catholic League, Macomb Area Conference and Blue Water Area Conference.
Being a referee has not only allowed him to stay in the game and the high school basketball community, but it’s also introduced him to new people who have the same love for the game.
“This community really is special,” he said. “We’re not in it to get rich. We’re in it because we’re passionate about the game.”
This year’s Semifinal was his first, and he was joined on the court by Jerry Armstrong and Douglas Richardson. It was the trio’s first time together.
“That can be part of the challenge,” McAndrews said. “You have to be able to adapt to other people’s way of doing things that you’ve never met before. That’s part of it. It’s about officiating the game as well as challenging yourself.”
Another challenge of refereeing during Finals weekend is the increase of eyes on the game, and the extra pressure that can bring.
“In this particular case, it was my first time (reffing) on TV,” McAndrews said. “There’s commentators with replays, and there are different responsibilities in regard to timeouts. There was a little anxiety. I said to my partners that I’m just going to try to smile, be in the moment and enjoy it, because it’s been a crazy couple years. But your peers are watching, other referees are watching, and they’ll let you know if you miss something.”
The game went off without any issues, and the experience ended up being even better than McAndrews expected, as his kids were able to be on the court with him.
“It was fantastic,” he said. “I can’t think of a better word for it. My family was able to get involved, and we had first-class accommodations. My kids were able to be the ball boy and the water guy for me, so this wasn’t just for me. We were very appreciative of it all, and it was really, really fun.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Jim McAndrews works this season’s Division 2 Semifinals between Grand Rapids West Catholic and Detroit Country Day. (Middle) McAndrews, kneeling lower left, serves as an assistant coach during Cardinal Mooney’s run to Breslin in 2010. (Top photo by Hockey Weekly Action Photos; middle courtesy the McAndrews family.)
Retired NHL-er Back on Ice to Answer Call - By Making Them
By Rob Kaminski
MHSAA benchmarks editor
March 16, 2023
The most accomplished skater on the ice during Friday’s triple-overtime MHSAA Division 1 Semifinal hockey thriller between Hartland and Brighton was not wearing the school colors of either team.
In front of a packed house at Plymouth’s USA Hockey Arena, referee Bryan Smolinski was in stripes, just like the rest of his officiating crew.
In his former life, he pulled on plenty of sweaters before lacing up the skates. That happens when one logs more than 1,000 games, tallies nearly 300 goals (274) and close to 400 assists (377) with eight teams spanning a 15-year playing career in the National Hockey League.
So, how did the 52-year-old former star player find himself on the ice last weekend as one of the referees for the pinnacle weekend of this high school season? Good question, even for the man known as “Smoke” during his playing days.
“I was working in youth development programs a few years back and reached out to some Michigan guys I had connections with about other ways to help the game,” Smolinski said. “I called Kevin May just to chat and asked, ‘Hey, how’s your reffing going?’ He said, ‘You know, we’re down a little bit,’ then said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ I said, ‘Not a chance,’” Smolinski laughed.
Never Say Never
May persisted, imploring his friend to skate with him during a Fall league at Cranbook in Bloomfield Hills. After eight weeks, once a week, Smolinski had a revelation.
“I’m like, ‘I’m kind of diggin’ this,’” Smolinski said “So, I did all the testing, and the educational part of it, and I really enjoyed it. I got with Danny (DiCristofaro) and his group, and he put me in as much as he could, and I really started to get my feet wet.”
DiCristofaro is the assigner and referee-in-chief for the MHSAA’s Northeast Hockey Referees Association, and he has seen Smolinski’s growth first-hand.
“Obviously he’s got great instincts and a feel for the game, along with a wealth of experience, all of which has allowed him to climb the ladder quickly,” said DiCristofaro. “It’s been a joy to watch his growth as an official.”
Fast forward to last Friday, and there were Smolinski and May sharing duties as referees during the MHSAA Semifinal with linesmen Michael Andrews and Thomas Robbins.
In between, there has been a learning curve that still continues, but the jump to officiating was not quite as daunting as his introduction to the NHL.
“I was scared to death. My first game was against Mario Lemieux. I’m in the old Boston Garden and now I’m playing against these guys and it’s their job, and they’re out there trying to make a living,” Smolinski recalled.
The emotions were not running nearly as frenzied for his first game as an MHSAA official, obviously, yet respect came in a different form.
“I couldn’t pick the puck up, I was breathing heavily; it was Kevin and me doing a two-man game in Brighton,” Smolinski recalled. “There were a few high-end kids playing, and I’m thinking, ‘I’m dying here.’ You know, there’s no training for that first time.”
What that experience did, however, was revitalize Smolinski in a new way. His playing career is well documented, not only in the NHL, but around Michigan. He enjoyed an honor-laden career at Michigan State University from 1989-93 before joining the Boston Bruins (who had drafted him three years earlier) at the end of the ’93 NHL campaign. Even after his final season, with Montreal in 2007-08, he stayed in the game via men’s leagues, or coaching his son, Max.
Smolinski and his wife, Julie, have three daughters: Ashtyn (22), Jojo (16) and Rylen (12), along with Max, whom dad coached for seven years including during a national championship run with a Little Caesars U15 team in 2019. Max, 19, is now playing collegiately at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
So, for Smolinski, officiating offers a new chapter.
“Reffing brought back ... I wouldn’t say love of the game, because that’s always been there; it’s a different side of enjoying the game now. I have no horse in the race, my son’s off to college, my daughters are doing their thing; I wanted to find something new in the game,” Smolinski said. “I’ve coached, and I don’t want to do that. I found this, and I’ve stuck with it.”
Old College Ties
One of the great benefits of athletics at any level are the friendships made. For two kids who met in their first years on the MSU campus and forged a bond that lasts to this day, it’s amazing how their careers reached the pinnacle and have now come full circle.
Wes McCauley, an MSU teammate, is one of Smolinski’s best friends. After numerous years in the minor leagues, McCauley, like his friend, made it to the NHL. But McCauley made it as an official, working his first NHL game in 2003, when Smolinski was nearing the end of his playing career.
Their games lined up on just a few occasions in the NHL, and the two lobbied hard to have McCauley work Smolinski’s 1,000th career game in his final season with the Canadiens in 2007-08. The request, sadly, was denied by the league.
On the rare occasions when the friends did share the same ice, less than a handful by Smolinski’s count, it was McCauley who was forced to rebuff any attempts at fraternization. It’s just part of an official’s edict.
“For both of us, it was amazing; it was just great,” Smolinski said. “I’d say, ‘Hey man what’s up?’ and he says, ‘Can’t talk.’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean, we talk all the time.’ Again, he’s like, ‘Can’t talk, get away from me.’ You know, it was just business.”
McCauley then reached the 1,000-game plateau himself in 2018 and is still going strong as a regular selection for playoff duties with nine Stanley Cup Finals assignments, including last year.
So, it should have been natural for Smolinski to go to his old friend immediately for officiating pointers once he joined the ranks, right? Well, maybe not immediately.
“I talk to Wes all the time, but I actually hid it from him right out of the gate because I didn’t want to take his razzing. Eventually it got out, and he was loving it. He started sending me whistles and visors and pants,” Smolinski said, grinning. “And none of it fit, you know, because I’m older and fatter, and he’s so damn skinny. So, I still had to go out and get all new gear.”
Both Sides Now
Having been to the top of his profession, now moving to the other side of that same mountain that his friend McCauley scaled, the respect has grown for those blowing the whistle.
“The preparation for officiating is much more mental,” Smolinski said. “Way more rules oriented. You’re always trying to get away with things that you can as a player; now you have to police that.”
Smolinski has a distinct advantage.
“I know everything they’re trying to do because I’ve done it. I know where you’re going with the puck, I know what kind of breakout you’re trying to do,” Smolinski said. “I have all the instincts, now I just try to stay out of the way and not ruin their game. The most fun is watching the game develop and the ups and downs. For me to be out there and enjoy it with them, that’s the fun part.”
Those who have played hockey at any level have a built-in advantage should they consider the officiating avocation: the ability to skate. Unlike officiating in any other sport, skating is a prerequisite. This makes the pool limited, and almost solely composed of former players. Smolinski offers this advice.
“I prefer sticking with high school because I think there’s more decorum, more administrative structure. Kids are playing for their schools, there’s loyalty there,” said Smolinski. “And there is more accountability. People need report to athletic directors and supervisors. Other levels can be more loosely governed, or a bit more maverick in nature. Moms and dads get involved more, coaches maybe know a little less,” said Smolinski.
He has, in fact, worked a handful of non-school games, and there’s a stark difference.
“I wanted to see what was going on, and I see it first-hand,” Smolinski said. “There are some crazy people and parents out there, and these guys are getting absolutely tortured. I’ve been tortured. There has to be a level of respect for what officials do. I think schools can rein that in a little more. All the guys I’ve met give up a lot of time and work hard because they love to do it and love the game.”
All sports need an assist from school administration and from those who once played the games to keep the officials recruitment moving in the right direction. People like Smolinski can help.
“He clearly doesn’t need to do this, and that’s what makes it so fantastic,” DiCristofaro said. “We need more people who have played – at any level – to do what he’s done and stay in the game as officials.”
Smolinski continues to promote the game in other ways as well. Currently he is involved in the NHL’s Learn To Play initiative, which aims to inspire youth and welcome more families into the hockey community.
“We work hand-in-hand with the NHL Players Association for player development and industry growth,” Smolinski said. “Ages 5 to 9 are introduced to hockey, get head-to-toe gear and instruction, and meet some former players.”
The idea is to have fun first, which can translate into years and maybe even a lifetime in the sport. It’s a lifetime that has given Smolinski so much and continues to do so as he watches it unfold for others from his new vantage point.
PHOTOS (Top) MHSAA official Bryan Smolinski signals during Friday's Division 1 Semifinal between Brighton and Hartland. (2) Smolinski, a retired NHL standout, communicates with the Bulldogs' bench. (3) Smolinski keeps watch during game play. (4) Smolinski, third from left, with his crew: Michael Andrews, Kevin May and Thomas Robbins.