Making - and Answering - the Call
September 28, 2012
By Rob Kaminski
“Life is a game with many rules but no referee. Small wonder, then, that so many play dirty, that so few win, that so many lose.” – Joseph Brodsky, Russian Poet and Essayist
To varying degrees, the world of athletics mirrors society. There are winners and losers. There are participants who look for ways to skirt the rules. However, in considering Mr. Brodsky's quotation above, there is one glaring difference between sports and life. Our games do have referees. Because of that, dirty play is less rampant and our games have more winners than losers, for the scoreboards only tell part of the story. There are lessons in winning and losing within the framework of enforced rules, lessons which equip young people with the tools to make society a little better in the future.
In life, the deck is stacked in favor of the players. According to one 2010 census, there were 1.8 police officers per 1,000 citizens in Michigan, a ratio which ranked 40th in the United States.
In contrast, during the 2011-12 school year, there were 37.2 registered MHSAA officials per 1,000 high school participants. Maybe, just maybe, that’s why school sports are at odds with Brodsky’s depiction of society; there are simply more cops on the beat.
At the very least, officials play a vital role in the existence of school sports. The games can’t go on without these men and women, and the MHSAA annually seeks improved recruitment and retention methods to promote growth of this group so integral to the health of its product.
They answer the call
So who are these people whose best work goes unnoticed; of whom perfection is the expectation; and who automatically alienate 50 percent of interested parties each time they make a decision? Who applies for this job? Why are some suited for the task, and others not? Asking why people leave the officiating life can often reveal just as many clues as talking to those who stay.
In 2004, the MHSAA conducted a survey targeting former officials to reveal their reasons for leaving the avocation and ask what might be done to bring them back.
The top three reasons people hung up their whistles or other tools of the trade were as follows: 1) career change/job demands; 2) poor sportsmanship by coaches and fans; 3) local association politics. Time spent away from family was also cited as a prime reason for leaving the games.
Eight years later, in a survey this August, the MHSAA again called upon former officials to generate data which can be helpful in recruiting new officials or luring back “retired” veterans.
Of more than 600 respondents at press time, the consensus of comments indicate a shift in culture. Career and personal demands no longer top the chart as reasons for leaving. Today’s barometer indicates that local association politics (the ability to receive games and advance through the ranks) and a lack of adequate training for new, younger, officials rank as the prime reasons for people exiting the game relatively early in their quest.
Sportsmanship concerns for the behavior of coaches, parents and participants still rates as the second-greatest deterrent.
“It is imperative to survey our constituents on a frequent basis so we can react to the various factors which prompt trends in the industry,” said Mark Uyl, MHSAA assistant director who oversees the state’s 12,000 registered officials. “I think we’ve successfully addressed some issues based on the findings from the 2004 survey, and we expect to analyze this year’s questionnaire at length to address the most pressing issues accordingly.”
The majority of the slips filling the suggestion box from the August survey: 1) provide increased training opportunities for new officials; 2) work with local associations to create more opportunities for new people to receive a greater number of games; 3) allow officials to rate schools and coaches, and develop programs for peer evaluation, rather than receiving ratings from coaches only.
The MHSAA has made strides in tackling each issue, and this year’s data will further focus its efforts to improve the officiating environment.
In recent years, the MHSAA has conducted officials camps in basketball and football (see stories on pages 14 and 33) and created an officials video training page on MHSAA.com.
While the officials ratings still come from the schools, local approved officials associations now submit candidates for MHSAA tournament assignments, and the nominations hold more weight with the MHSAA than ever before. As a result, local associations are better evaluating their members.
Additionally, officials can now access and submit a school sportsmanship feedback form to rate school facilities and coach, player and spectator behavior. Findings from this year’s survey indicate that officials would like a more detailed system, and a greater emphasis on sportsmanship education for coaches. To that end, the MHSAA offers one of the most comprehensive coaches education programs in the nation through its Coaches Advancement Program, and offers incentives to those who register for classes, many of which tout sportsmanship.
“We also encourage local associations to communicate with leagues and conferences outside the playing boundaries,” Uyl said. “Several associations invite coaches to a meeting or two each year for honest, face-to-face discussion. We’ve also been told of schools which invite a veteran official to parents meetings or team meetings prior to the season to help explain rules and their role in the games. Conversation in these settings serve our members well and assist in breaking down barriers.”
Key to growth and improvement of MHSAA sports officials are the efforts of local approved associations.
“There is no question that any successes we enjoy as a state association are directly related to the leadership of our local associations,” Uyl said. “Through programs like our train-the-trainers sessions each summer we can put the wheels in motion, but the real grass-roots education of our men and women happens in communities throughout the state. And, the people in place to carry out our officials education are second to none.”
Recruitment starts with family
If there’s anything you’ll take from this issue of benchmarks, it’s that there are no better recruiters, – no more qualified individuals to blare the trumpets – than officiating’s own family members. It’s a recurring theme repeated by numerous individuals.
Carl Van Heck, assigner for the West Michigan Umpires Association, said his association attempts to identify MHSAA-registered umpires in the area not currently members of the WMUA and invite them to join. His association also attracts a few individuals per year through an ad in the Grand Rapids Press. The real recruitment and retention begins once the rookies are in the association.
“Our executive board recently voted to install a mentoring program which will pair a veteran official to work a number of games with a new official to get him or her started on the right foot,” said Van Heck. “This is on a voluntary basis for both the veteran and the newcomer, and they are assigned these games in addition to their regular schedule.
“We also conduct an annual clinic on a Saturday at Grand Valley State University that is free to all of our members. We want the best-trained umpires both new and old to put on the field for the schools we work for.”
That’s the hook; making new officials feel comfortable while increasing their skill level and affording them ample opportunities to work.
While much of this responsibility falls to the local level, much is also expected of the MHSAA to assist in this process.
“The biggest obstacles young referees face in officiating high school soccer matches are legalistic rule changes, lack of expert feedback and lack of opportunity,” said Alex Smith, president of the Greater Lansing Area Soccer Referees Association. Smith opines that onfield issues in soccer are often met with the addition of a new rule, and in many instances there aren’t enough knowledgeable leaders to assist the younger soccer officials.
“For excited young or new referees looking to improve, there are few, if any, options for unbiased or expert feedback for them to consult,” Smith said, while adding that continued efforts between GLASRA and the MHSAA could soothe development issues.
“Certainly, in recent years GLASRA and others have given MHSAA credit for beginning to address these weaknesses. It's our hope that MHSAA continues to refine, streamline and improve its development and retention of new officials,” Smith said.
Uyl agrees, and welcomes input from all entities around the state.
“Some of the areas identified from GLASRA and other associations in other sports continue to be on the radar for improvement and change,” Uyl said. “Frank, honest and professional feedback is the only way we can keep moving forward in the right direction together with all of our officials.”
Onward and upward
At times, it seems, the biggest roadblock to officials advancement is officials themselves, resulting from a collision of two eras.
When it comes to younger officials proclaiming a lack of training opportunity and game assignments, how much of it is a reflection of societal change? Newer officials are raised in a world of instant gratification; from fast food, to satellite TV, to smart phones and the Internet, they are of the culture that gets anything it wants, when it wants.
Older officials, who tend to be the assigners, have an understanding of what it takes to work the highest levels of a sport. They know what they’ve been through to move up the ranks, and they know who they’ve moved up with. It becomes a matter of trusting the known, and being suspicious of the unknown. Yes, at times, the industry can be a “good ol’ boy network.”
The challenge is to make sure the new kids are aware of existing training opportunities and the investment necessary for advancement, while opening the veterans’ eyes to a pool of new talent and identifying those best suited to lead the neophytes.
“Again, I think this is an area that’s improving as we try to encourage our leaders around the state to take ownership in the development of our young officials,” Uyl said. “We constantly encourage our associations to nominate ‘new blood’ for our tournaments, and I think associations can take pride in turning out young people who are knowledgeable, physically fit and passionate about this business we’re in. It’s a people business, first and foremost, so it’s paramount that our own kind work together.”
As mentioned, the MHSAA began seeking greater input from approved associations for its tournament selection a few years back. While the coaches rating system still serves as one of the gauges, the ratings are not the be-all, end-all when it comes to assignments. Local associations need to take that lead.
“We promote our officials from the subvarsity level to the varsity level based on ratings, and there is a lack of ratings from our local schools for officials working on the subvarsity level,” Van Heck said. “We tend to lose officials who after the third year are not advancing due to lack of ratings.”
The WMUA’s new mentor program can serve to change the culture there. As more feedback is gathered from veteran officials working with the newcomers, less weight can be attached to coaches ratings which seldom arrive.
In any line of work, people want to be rewarded for their efforts, or, at the very least, appreciated by their peers. If it’s motivation, education and affirmation that young officials are seeking, there will be no better place to look than Grand Rapids next July. A day-long event tailored to high school officiating in Michigan takes place Saturday, July 27, preceding the 2013 National Sports Officials Association Summit. All registered MHSAA officials are encouraged to attend. Registration information will be posted to MHSAA.com later this fall.
Survey examines reasons for calling it quits
Following is a sampling of responses from former officials offering reasons for leaving the playing fields and arenas, along with suggestions for retention. Complete survey results can be found on the Officials page of MHSAA.com.
- “Maybe some further education for the coaches, who in turn can educate their parents, might help the process. We, as officials, don't question the play calls of the head coach publicly. Why should it be fair for the coach to question the calls of the official publicly?”
- “Find a way to schedule officials who want to work games. People want to work, but no one wants to schedule them. I often hear it is a lack of experience, but you can't get experience unless you work games.”
- “When a new member comes on board, have an experienced official contact him or her immediately about assignments. This will make his or her first game more comfortable. Officials are team players just like those who they will officiate.”
- “The time away from family, the cost and effort to stay certified, and the commitment to staying conditioned and prepared for the level of play unfortunately does not surpass the "lack of fun" that refereeing soccer has become. A solution seems unrealistic because of the scope of the problem – but it needs to start somewhere. Great idea to send this survey and begin the process of improvement.”
- “I was woefully unprepared and lacked the knowledge necessary to be an effective official. If it weren't for an optional clinic I took part in, I would have been a disaster. A lot of that is on me, but I can't believe I was let on the field by the MHSAA considering how little training and information I was provided. Rookie officials need more shadowing and more observation before being put into a game.”
- “I just wanted to officiate middle school sports and was very comfortable with this level. I quickly learned being part of a local association of officials and going through that hoopla was more of a pain. I got a couple games because I knew the middle school administration, but that was too short-lived.”
- “Legislate how much the assigners can charge young official to attend camps. I found that the amount of instruction was not commensurate with the charge. I don't have a major problem with assigners being compensated for their organizing and other things they might being doing. However, officials should not have to break even or operate at a loss when the assigners are padding their pockets.”
- “Improve education on how to prepare for unreasonable fans, coaches and parents. Also improve on the efforts of team’s comprehension of rules. Coach and fan behavior: I’ve officiated 25-30 minor league baseball games. We take more abuse at the high school level. It just got old.”
- “I believe coaches and athletic directors should introduce graduating seniors to local associations. This would get younger people involved.”
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.