Lentz Learned from 'Legacy,' Builds Own

June 9, 2016

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Umpire Nic Lentz stepped onto the field April 20 at Marlins Park prior to Miami’s game against the Washington Nationals, and he was met by moments he’ll remember the rest of his life.

The game was his first at the Major League Baseball level. And if that wasn’t enough, the Howell native's parents Steve and Tammy were in the crowd – “so not only was it a special moment for me, but also making them proud walking on that field for the first time is something I’ll have for the rest of my life,” Lentz said.

“It was all very humbling. It’s hard to describe what it feels like receiving that call or stepping on that field for the first time,” Lentz wrote recently during a break in his whirlwind tour as a first-year fill-in for MLB umpires who are ill, injured or on vacation. “That being said, from a personal aspect, it took me back to years I have spent in this profession … things I have learned throughout the years both on and off the field.”

By the end of May, Lentz had traveled from Miami, to Cincinnati, then on to Baltimore, Los Angeles, Seattle, Arizona, Houston, Detroit and Toronto.

And the story of his start in officiating has been nearly as well traveled these last few weeks, with the hope his rise through the ranks – including a spring as part of the MHSAA’s Legacy Student Officials Program – might serve as an inspiration to young people considering the opportunities that come with the officiating avocation.

Lentz, 26, has risen from entry level to the largest stage in just under a decade. He began umpiring at the rec levels when he was 12; by the time he was 16, he was done playing and passionate about becoming an umpire.

A homeschooled student in the Howell area, Lentz approached then-Highlanders athletic director Doug Paige to find out how he might be able to continue growing his skills and take them to the next level.

Paige called Dan Jeffery, who currently is in his 22nd year as an officials assigner in the southeastern Lower Peninsula and works with the Kensington Lakes Activities Association and Southeastern Conference.

“Nic was 16 years old, and my son (Dan, Jr.) and I were working a game at Hartland, and I said why not come out and watch us work and we’ll talk,” Jeffery Sr. said. “Next thing you know, here’s this tall, skinny young kid waving at us.”

A decade later, Lentz took his post near first base in front of nearly 17,000 fans, the latest step in a career that’s also included stops in 10 leagues at various levels of the minor league and instructional ladder, mostly in the U.S. but also Venezuela, and MLB spring training as well.

Beginning a legacy

That first meeting with the Jefferys turned into a spot in the MHSAA Legacy Program, which pairs high school juniors and seniors interested in officiating with a registered MHSAA official. The veteran mentors the younger official, providing guidance in getting started while the pair works games together at the middle school/junior high and subvarsity levels.

Jeffery Sr. paired Lentz with Kyle Clapper, a former player when Jeffery was part of Howell’s football staff. Lentz also continued attending games worked by Jeffery and his son (Dan Jr. now officiates at the college level), and remains in regular contact with Jeffery Sr. today. He received additional input and guidance from MHSAA assistant director Mark Uyl, who is in charge of officials for the association and worked the NCAA Division I College Baseball World Series in 2014.

“(Lentz) came around and watched and showed this unbelievable interest,” Jeffery said. “He just took to it. It’s unbelievable. It’s amazing.”

“From a personal aspect, it was the next stepping-stone for me,” Lentz said of the Legacy Program. “I had been umpiring travel baseball for the past few years now, and I wanted to grow in my skills and take it to the next level. The Legacy Program seemed to be the best option. I always looked at it as the launching pad for where I am today.”

Lentz clearly has a natural talent for his profession. In January 2008, just turned 18 and recently graduated from high school, he attended the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring. After graduation there, he was put on the wait list for the Coastal Plain League, a wood bat league for college players in Virginia and North and South Carolina. He worked in that league three weeks during the summer of 2008 – and then received a call from the Arizona League, a rookie league that serves as the entry level for many minor league baseball players.

With that, Lentz began climbing his ladder as well.

Top rung and top-shelf

Lentz is in his third season in the International League, which is Triple-A – the highest minor league level for players. He’s a crew chief at that level.

He’s also shined during his MLB fill-in opportunities.

“His attention to detail; when you look at him today … his posture and his presence, you just see it,” Jeffery said. “As soon as you look at him, you just see it.

“He knows the rules, he studies really well, and mechanically he’s incredible. He not only studies the rules, but he knows where he’s supposed to be.”

Lentz lives in Holland (as do his parents) and in 2009 joined the crew of instructors for the annual Southeast Michigan Umpire Camp, which focuses on teaching high school officiating mechanics and draws roughly 100 officials to Livonia every February. Jeffery said that two years ago, there were 40 officials younger than 20 years old. 

Jeffery calls himself the “old dude” at 68. But Lentz’ presence and current experience certainly resonate with their students.

“Nic is great with the campers and is very well-liked,” said official Bill Parker, the president and founder of the camp who also has worked in minor league baseball. “He will do anything that is asked of him. It has been a great joy watching Nic progress through the minor leagues and into the major leagues.”

“I would and do tell future and current umpires to continue to have a passion for the game. You can’t umpire any game, be it at the amateur or professional level, without that passion,” Lentz said. “So follow that passion, have fun doing it, stay humble and work hard every day. I would say that to be true for any career in life, wherever that passion may be.”

Michigan family, friends and fellow officials are cheering on that passion as they watch Lentz’ travels this summer and anticipate his move to MLB full-time in the future. Jeffery said he sees Lentz working at that highest level for decades to come – but also told his former protégé to make sure to take it all in that first game April 20, “take a deep breath, take a look around and remember where you’re at.”

And Lentz will never take for granted those who have helped him get there.

“There are so many people I have kept in touch with over the years, both before my professional career and throughout it,” Lentz said. “There are so many friendships I have built, and the support of everyone has always meant a great deal to me. And you can’t come close to putting a price tag on that.”

Click to learn more about the MHSAA Legacy Student Officials Program or Southeast Michigan Umpire Camp

PHOTOS: (Top) Nic Lentz serves as plate umpire during an MLB game last month. (Middle) Lentz enters the field and works at third base during a game at Comerica Park. (Below) Lentz instructs umpires at the Southeast Michigan Umpire Camp. (Photos courtesy of Dan Jeffery, Sr., Bill Parker and the Lentz 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.”

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.