Legacy Program Serves New Officials

By Rob Kaminski
MHSAA benchmarks editor

October 5, 2012

Implemented 20 years ago by the MHSAA, the Legacy Student Officials Program continues to spawn enthusiastic young officials who are more likely to stay in the family beyond their formative years.

The program pairs high school juniors or seniors with mentors who are already registered MHSAA officials. The one-on-one tutelage serves to introduce, educate and encourage interested students, while upping the odds for retention. Both parties sign a Legacy Pledge form outlining the basic agreement, with one condition being that the students work only subvarsity contests with their mentor or other veteran MHSAA officials.

During the 2011-12 school year, 107 students participated as Legacy officials, bringing the total to 1,156 since 1992. It’s another example of the officiating lineage growing from within and taking care of its own. In many cases, the vets literally are family.

“After graduating high school in the spring of 2006, my father, Rick (an MHSAA registered official for more than 25 years), inspired me to register and work the football season the next fall,” said Chris “C.J.” Jackson. “The worst years of officiating for me were my first two seasons because I couldn’t stand the berating from coaches and fans. I wasn’t good, and everyone picked up on that. My Dad was the only person who kept me in the game. Six seasons later, I find myself going into my second season of college football working as a deep wing official for the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletics Conference (GLIAC). This achievement can only be attributed to my dad.”

Also following in Dad’s footsteps are Trevor and Austin Hartley of Lansing, as father, Eric, got them involved at an early age.

“He has helped me on the field, but more importantly off of the field to become a better official in general and a better person,” said Trevor of Eric. “He was responsible for getting me into officiating, but staying in has been a goal  from the beginning.”

Trevor’s sentiment is common among the species. Once officiating gets into the bloodstream – whether from immediate family or from a mentor in the extended family – it tends to stay.

Mentors in the Legacy Program take their roles seriously, and spend countless unpaid hours helping their students develop. The finished product is all the compensation they need.

“If it weren’t for my mentor pushing me and telling me I could be a really great official, I never would have kept going this far. I continue to officiate because it is a great opportunity to give back and be a part of something I love with a passion, and that is sports,” said Detroit Martin Luther King grad Kyle Bowen, who first registered in 2008 under the guidance of Detroit’s Darryl Jones.

The basketball official has taken his skills to Grand Rapids, where he attends Grand Valley State University and continues work as an official while discovering its ancillary benefits.

“Being an official has helped me so much in a lot of different aspects in my life,” Bowen said. “I work at Grand Valley as a supervisor in the intramural program. That job entails developing and training new officials so we can produce quality officiating in our program.

“Darryl showed me how important it is to have tough skin and how to handle adverse situations when they come up and not let them linger. He taught me that officiating is probably one of the best things you could ever do, but it’s not for everyone.”

Not for everyone, but thanks to a growing list of sports, there are more opportunities to lure potential candidates. When the Legacy Program was launched, competitive cheer and lacrosse  were not yet MHSAA-sponsored sports. Cheer  hit the tournament scene in 1994, while lacrosse arrived in 2005. As participation in those sports continues to increase, the pool of potential officials expands.

For recent Oakland University graduate Leah DiCristofaro, cheerleading was something she’d enjoyed since the age of 5. Her mother Renee is a veteran official for the Michigan Cheer Judges Association, where Candy Cox also serves as one of the state’s top judges.

“When Leah was a senior in high school (St. Clair Shores Lake Shore), she registered as a Legacy official,” Cox said. “She had a mentor who was with her at every competition during that year.  At her first competition, she worried that she would miss something and not credit the teams properly. But, with guidance from her mentor and fellow judges those fears were short-lived.”   

DiCristofaro continued to judge during college, but on a limited basis. The fact she took on any assignments at all illustrated her commitment, as she not only was putting up grades worthy of making the national honor roll, but she was a four-year starter for the Grizzlies softball team. As a catcher and designated player, DiCristofaro led the team with a .308 batting average as a sophomore, and tied for the team lead with six homers as a senior last spring.    

“She  accepted a limited amount of meets, but she kept officiating throughout all four years of college. Last year she filled in several times for officials who cancelled at the last minute,” Cox said.

Across the state, Helen Young experienced a similar childhood centered around athletics. Her parents, Neal and Vicki, coach lacrosse for Grand Rapids Christian schools. Vicki oversees the youth program, 3rd through 12th grades, and coaches the middle school. Neal is the varsity head coach at Christian High School, where Helen excelled and earned numerous honors.

Through her experiences, she also began to help her mother coach the middle school team, and made acquaintances like Nancy Lapekas of the West Michigan Lacrosse Association. Young was hooked.

“Nancy Lapekas has been so helpful in teaching me, assigning me, and supporting me on and off the lacrosse field,” said Young, who last spring earned a $1,000 scholarship from Michigan Lacrosse. “She has kept me going. As a young ref,  if she didn't have my back I don't think I would have been able to continue. I love all aspects of the sport. I play, coach, and officiate, and it is nice to see the game from all angles.”

Young is a freshman at Michigan State University, and already plans to have a busy spring, when she’ll be balancing classwork and officiating.

“The most rewarding part of being a younger official is that I get to meet and ref with wonderful role models,” she said. “Some of the greatest people are adults I get to work with on the field. The cool part about my relationship with these other refs is that they are there for me off the field as well.”

That’s the beauty of the Legacy Program. A dedicated mentor sets the wheels in motion and opens a world of possibilities to students dedicated enough to seek advancement. There are no limits to the number of contacts and support groups in the industry.

Luke Bowman is a 2008 Jackson Lumen Christi grad who still leans on mentor Chuck Walters from time to time.

“Chuck has been a huge influence in my officiating career. I am always able to give him a call to bounce rule questions off of, even after I left my hometown being 100 miles away up at Central Michigan University.”  

Like all young officials, Bowman soon realized that there were more people like Walters wherever he went; an endless supply of support personnel the further one delves into this avocation.

“The Capital Area Officials Association in Lansing has helped me grow as an official by constantly challenging my skills and abilities,” Bowman said. “Each meeting begins with a closed-book rules quiz to test our knowledge.  Why is it closed-book?  On Friday nights we can’t  bust out the rules book on the field.  The tools and resources available to the members range from evaluations at games and scrimmages to working with veteran officials.”

A couple common threads bond Legacy officials who continue to register with the MHSAA. Many are college-bound, or first officiated at the youth level.

Michael Reseigh fits the bill. While playing soccer at Rochester High School, Reseigh officiated local club games for five years. When his playing days were done he set his sights on officiating the high school level and contacted Pat Hayes of the Soccer Referees Association in the spring of 2009.

Now a senior at the University of Michigan,  he has been at it ever since, with help from Hayes.

“When I went to college, my availability became limited. I was almost completely unavailable for the boys season in the fall. I was available, however, for  the girls season since my semester at college finished at the end of April. I expressed my desire to Pat Hayes that I remain active in the association despite my limited availability. She has been great to me, giving me as many games as possible for the month of May when I come home,” Reseigh said.

Of course, not all in the world of fun and games is, well, fun and games. Young officials will experience all of the pitfalls that come with the uniform; tense moments, nervousness, missed calls and clashes with coaches. 

They also have the additional burden of learning mechanics, contest rules and philosophies while working the lowest levels where the most chaotic action and least sympathetic coaches preside. Then, there’s the final hurdle of perception, simply brought on by their youthful appearance. It’s been said by many a veteran official that the least experienced officials have the toughest games to work.

“Some of the challenges I have had are due to my age,” Young said. “I think coaches don't take me seriously, and expect I don't know what I am talking about. If I let it bother me, then I probably wouldn't be able to ref. One time I made a call, and the coach proceeded to scream at me and yell at me and come onto the field. The behavior was even more ridiculous because it was a 5th/6th-grade game! I think that he felt like he could yell at me because I was a young ref.”

Trevor Hartley relates a similar scenario.

“I have had to deal with it since Day One,” Hartley said. “In my first-ever football game, a youth game, a coach was arguing a no-call with me and questioned if I was any older than the 5th and 6th-grade players on the field.”

The participants at that level are far from perfect. Having people understand that is one of the luxuries youth players have and officials don’t. It’sone of the great double-standards of athletics.

“A first-year official doing a 5th-grade football game is expected by coaches, players and fans to look like, act like, talk like, and officiate like a Big Ten football official,” Jackson said. “Yes, every game is important, no matter the level of play, but it is impossible to expect the greatest officials at every level of play.”

Again, this is where the Legacy Program pays dividends, as the young officials are not left on an island. There is support early and often, all the while allowing officials to grow. For those who understand their role in the game, the benefits stretch beyond the fields and gyms.

“I would tell students who are hesitant to take the step and try officiating, as there is really nothing to lose,” said Reseigh.

“I have learned how to manage any type of situation due to officiating. It has taught me respect for the game and all involved with it as well as taking responsibility for my own actions,” Jackson said.

“To younger people who want to officiate I would say, ‘Go for it,’” said Young. “It is such a great experience and it really helped me mature and be confident.”

“In the heat of the moment, you are going to have to effectively communicate with coaches and players in intense conversations,” Bowman said. “These skills will translate to the workplace as well.  I directly attribute my success in the workplace to officiating.”

“The best advice I can give is, ‘Just go out there and try it,’” Bowen said. “No one will be perfect and get every call, but if you put your best effort forward then you can do great things.”

Sounds like they’ve been well trained from those before them, and are more than capable of carrying on the officiating legacy.

PHOTOS: (Top) Helen Young, a girls lacrosse official and product of the Legacy program, called youth lacrosse games while also playing on Grand Rapids Christian's varsity. (Middle) Kyle Bowen is a Legacy program and Detroit Martin Luther King grad.

NOTE: This is the second installment in the series "Making – and Answering – the Call" detailing the careers and service of MHSAA officials. Click the link below to view the first.

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.”

Smolinski, a retired NHL standout, communicates with the Bulldogs' bench.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.

Smolinski keeps watch during game play. 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.”

Smolinski, third from left, with his crew: Michael Andrews, Kevin May and Thomas Robbins.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.