Norris Honoree Adding to 60-Year Legacy

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

May 13, 2020

One of many who recommended Saginaw's Hugh Matson for this year's Vern L. Norris Award called him "an interscholastic icon" and what "high school athletics should be all about." 

Already recognized prestigiously for his leadership as a coach and administrator, Matson made lasting impacts on Michigan high school sports serving those duties over a career stretching four decades. 

And more than 20 years after retiring from that work, Matson’s contributions to school sports continue in another key role. He has been selected as this year’s honoree for the MHSAA's Norris Award as he celebrates his 50th school year as an MHSAA-registered contest official.

The Norris Award is presented annually to a veteran official who has been active in a local officials association, has mentored other officials, and has been involved in officials’ education. It is named for Vern L. Norris, who served as executive director of the MHSAA from 1978-86 and was well-respected by officials on the state and national levels.

Matson is the second honoree in MHSAA history to receive both the Norris and Charles E. Forsythe Award, the latter presented to Matson in 2015 for his overall contributions to interscholastic athletics. Matson joined Kalamazoo’s Blake Hagman, who received the Norris Award in 1998 and the Forsythe Award in 2000.

Matson was to be honored with his Norris Award this month at the MHSAA’s 41st Officials’ Awards & Alumni Banquet. However, the banquet was canceled due to safety concerns because of COVID-19, and he instead will be invited to accept his award formally at the 2021 banquet.

Matson first registered with the MHSAA to officiate track & field and cross country during the 1970-71 school year and has officiated combined more than 800 meets in those sports – including more than 20 Regionals and nearly 20 MHSAA Finals. He also has officiated cross country and track & field at the Division I, II and III and NAIA collegiate levels.

His career in education began when Matson took his first teaching job in 1957, at Mattawan. He then moved to Saginaw Township Community Schools, teaching and coaching at Saginaw MacArthur High School from 1962-71 and then Saginaw Eisenhower from 1971-88. Matson served as head varsity football and track & field coach at Mattawan and as head track & field coach at both MacArthur and Eisenhower, in addition to serving as an assistant football coach at both schools. He became the first and only athletic director in Eisenhower’s history – holding that position from the school’s first day during the 1970-71 school year until the end of the 1987-88 school year, when he became co-athletic director of the new Saginaw Heritage High School, which was created from a merger of MacArthur and Eisenhower. Matson served as the sole full-time athletic director of Heritage for 1996-97 before retiring.  

“When I started, I knew wanted to be a coach; I didn’t know for sure if I wanted to be a teacher. But I found out teaching and coaching are really the same thing, and I enjoyed the teaching as much as the coaching. Then I found out that officiating is much the same,” Matson said. “I enjoy the kids. One of the things that warms my heart is when a kid will come up and say, ‘Thanks for officiating.’ Officiating is all just part of working with kids as I did as a coach and as I did as a teacher.”

Matson has been a member of the Association of Track Officials of Michigan (ATOM) since 1993 and received its 2009-10 Art Jevert/Bruce Jacobs Distinguished Service Award. He also received the Chuck Wheeker Volunteer of the Year Award from Saginaw Valley State University track & field in 2012 and the USA Track & Field (USATF) National Officials Committee Outstanding Service Award in 2014. He received designation as a Certified Master-level starter by USATF in 2000.  

He has served as a volunteer track starter for SVSU and as a volunteer official for middle and high school meets as part of the Michigan Indoor Track Series, both since 1997.

While an athletic director, Matson was a member of the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (MIAAA) from 1970-97 and served as its president during the 1989-90 school year. He was a member of the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) from 1980-97 and served as a representative and speaker for the MIAAA at regional conferences in Iowa and Wisconsin and to the NIAAA Leadership Forum in 1987. Matson was named to the Saginaw County Sports Hall of Fame in 2014.

“The same attributes that made Hugh Matson a beloved teacher, coach and athletic director have made him beloved to the officiating community as well,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “His selflessness and dedication continues to shine through in his mentorship of officials, as well as athletes and coaches, and his guidance and insights continue to benefit the track & field and cross country communities statewide.”

Coincidentally, Matson had crossed paths with both men whose awards he has received before beginning his career in education. Matson was a sophomore on the 1951 Newaygo boys basketball team that reached the Class D Semifinals and was greeted in East Lansing by Forsythe. And as a senior at Western Michigan University, Matson received advising from Norris, who was working in the placement office at the time. Matson then did his student teaching at Godwin Heights, Norris' alma mater.

Matson graduated from Newaygo in 1953, having earned 13 varsity letters over four sports – football, basketball, baseball and track. He received his bachelor’s degree in physical education with minors in English and history in 1957 from WMU.

He taught English and history at Mattawan, and then English and physical education during his three tenures as part of Saginaw Township Community Schools. Matson remains an active member of First Congregational Church in Saginaw, having served as an usher for more than 50 years, as a board member and as part of a breakfast club serving local homeless.

He's been married to his wife Jackie for 59 years, and together they have two daughters. 

Previous recipients of the Norris Award

1992 – Ted Wilson, East Detroit
1993 – Fred Briggs, Burton
1994 – Joe Brodie, Flat Rock
1995 – Jim Massar, Flint
1996 – Jim Lamoreaux, St. Ignace
1997 – Ken Myllyla, Escanaba
1998 – Blake Hagman, Kalamazoo
1999 – Richard Kalahar, Jackson
2000 – Barb Beckett, Traverse City; Karl Newingham, Bay City
2001 – Herb Lipschultz, Kalamazoo
2002 – Robert Scholie, Hancock
2003 – Ron Nagy, Hazel Park
2004 – Carl Van Heck, Grand Rapids 
2005 – Bruce Moss, Alma
2006 – Jeanne Skinner, Grand Rapids
2007 – Terry Wakeley, Grayling
2008 – Will Lynch, Honor
2009 – James Danhoff, Richland
2010 – John Juday Sr., Petoskey
2011 – Robert Williams, Redford
2012 – Lyle Berry, Rockford
2013 – Tom Minter, Okemos
2014 – Hugh R. Jewell, West Bloomfield
2015 – Sam Davis, Lansing 
2016 – Linda Hoover, Marshall
2017 – Michael Gentry, Shelby Township
2018 – Jill Baker-Cooley, Big Rapids
2019 – David Buck, St. Joseph

High school game officials with 20, 30, 40, 45 and 50 years of service also are being honored with service awards. Twenty-three officials with 50 years of service are being honored, along with 55 officials with 45 years. A 40-year award is being presented to 55 officials. In addition, 108 officials with 30 years and 181 officials with 20 years of experience are being honored.

20, 30, 40, 45 & 50-YEAR OFFICIALS

The officials on this list are receiving their 20, 30, 40, 45 or 50-year service awards.




Ada - Michael D. Packard

Adrian - Keith J. Zubke
Allen Park - Julie A. Goodwin
Alpena - Ian K. Lundquist
Ann Arbor - Nancy E. Brucken
Auburn Hills - Frank Benion Jr. 


Bath - Ruth J. Miehlke
Battle Creek - Jack McCulley
Battle Creek - Michael W. Smith
Battle Creek - Levi R. Watkins
Bay City - Jason R. Andrzejewski
Bay City - James J. Fitrakis
Bay City - Thomas L. Oleniacz
Bellevue - Stanley L. Guzy
Benton Harbor - Denny L. Edwards
Benzonia - James R. Sheets
Bessemer - Tony Gheller
Bessemer - Mark L. Movrich
Beulah - Jeffrey T. Bretzke
Beulah - Dennis J. Keeney
Birmingham - Patricia M. Hayes
Bloomfield Hills - Eric T. Seifert
Brighton - Jennifer J. Brown
Brighton - Jeffrey J. Houtteman 


Cadillac - Kyle J. Hondorp
Caledonia - Timothy J. Restau
Canton - Makia D. Alexander
Canton - Gregory S. Santilli
Canton - Kevin W. Winningham
Cedarville - Charles G. Paquin Jr.
Charlotte - Eric C. Frohriep
Clinton Township - William R. Blickensdorf
Clio - Tim C. Ashbury
Clio - Gene VanAlst
Coleman - Jerry R. Evans
Commerce Township - Ronald J. Eberline
Crystal Falls - Jason W. Price 


Daggett - Richard J. Dietz
Davisburg - Paul E. Knudson
Davison - Thomas M. Dowdall
Dearborn - Dave Deckert
Dearborn Heights - Gerald P. Boudreaux
Dearborn Heights - Bennie C. Roach
Detroit - Aaron F. McDaniel
Detroit - W. James Pierce
Dorr - James R. Graham
Dowagiac - Ronald A. Gunn 


Eau Claire - Lance E. Green
Elsie - Nathan R. Taylor 


Farmington - Timothy A. Fino
Farmington Hills - Katherine E. Williams
Fenton - Eric R. Golota
Fenton - Thomas C. Ureche Jr.
Flat Rock - Douglas R. Hill
Flint - Gregory T. Folsom
Flint - Arden P. Irwin
Flint - Floyd B. Williams
Flushing - Caron M. Sullivan
Fort Gratiot - Todd A. Kackman
Fowlerville - Robert G. Myers
Fremont - Paulette J. Moon 


Gladwin - Art J. Adamec Jr.
Gowen - Patrick M. Cain
Grand Blanc - Jared R. Hoffmeyer
Grand Blanc - Scott C. Smith
Grand Haven - Daniel R. Holt
Grand Ledge - Marvin E. Hardy Jr.
Grand Rapids - Greg T. Adams
Grand Rapids - Burton J. Cook
Grand Rapids - Thomas C. Emery
Grand Rapids - James H. Fellinger
Grand Rapids - Bruce L. Hull
Grand Rapids - Richard G. Koperski
Grand Rapids - Scott A. Maternowski
Grand Rapids - Kelly A. Richardson
Grosse Pointe - Allan Diver 


Hamilton - Douglas W. Braschler
Hanover - Donald M. Bergstrom
Harrison Township - David B. Jones
Haslett - David R. Miller
Holland - Brian E. Burtch
Holland - Walter C. Lamb
Hudsonville - Mike S. Bartosiewicz
Huntington Woods - Gary R. Schack 


Iron Mountain - Ryan C. Gordon
Irons - Thomas R. Batista
Ironwood - Judy Cisewski
Ironwood - Ted E. Sim
Ishpeming - Adam J. Bergman 


Jackson - Pete J. Ambs
Jackson - Eric L. Baldwin
Jackson - Larry E. Owens Jr.
Jenison - Mark E. Heagle 


Kalamazoo - Karen L. Asch
Kalamazoo - John M. McBride
Kalamazoo - Larry A. Morrell 


Laingsburg - David M. Barnhill
Lake Odessa - Phillip J. Whitcomb

Lansing - Elliotte Love
Lansing - Daniel W. Mausolf
Lansing - Calvin G. Sanders
Livonia - Michael C. Cushman
Livonia - Michael J. Smith
Livonia – Bill Williams
Ludington - James T. Nordlund
Luther - Robert L. Rose


Macomb - Daniel P. Westfall
Manistique - Mark A. Giannunzio
Manistique - Barbara A. Landis
Maple City - Lawrence R. Olsen
Marshall - Toby L. Crull
Mason - Philip S. Nardone
Mendon - Kenneth R. Blough
Mendon - Shawn D. Griffith
Michigan Center - George A. Wyers
Midland - Jill A. Bertuleit
Midland - Carl H. Smith
Monroe - Ronald P. Coury
Monroe - Paul N. Howey
Monroe - Tracy L. Yeary
Moran - Mitchell J. Perry
Muskegon - Bob Covert
Muskegon - Thomas J. Nichols Jr. 


Negaunee - Michael F. Leanes
Negaunee - Jeffrey A. Marshall
New Baltimore - David A. Koch Sr.
North Muskegon - Gene A. Hyrns
Norton Shores - Kirk C. Antekeier 


Okemos - Robert Ianni
Olivet - Dana S. Higgins
Owosso - Mike W. Valasek 


Parma - Douglas D. Higelmire
Petoskey - Joseph R. Malec
Plymouth - Kara M. Burns
Plymouth - Jay D. Buelow
Pontiac - Troy F. Craft
Port Huron - Mitchell J. Nichols
Portage - Dustin J. Ruthven Sr.
Prescott - Gary A. Ragels 


Riverview - Joseph S. Murnane
Rochester - Gary M. Cook
Rochester Hills - Peter D. Oudsema
Roseville - Wayne Cupp
Royal Oak - Michael F. Henahan Jr 


Saginaw - Michael J. Fick
Saginaw - Charles F. Lydy
Saginaw - Clarence A. Thompson
Saline - Gary S. Quantock
Shepherd - Michelle E. Turpin
Sheridan - Randy A. Freed
Southfield - Quincey J. Price
St. Ignace - Doug J. Ingalls
St. Joseph - John K. Carr
Stanton - Thomas M. Wall
Stanwood - Doug VanSyckle
Sterling Heights - Ronald M. Camilletti
Sterling Heights - Jon Caran
Sterling Heights - Gratian P. Moldovan
Sterling Heights - Dean Ristovski
Sterling Heights - Tyrone Smith
Stevensville - Brandon D. Stacey
Sturgis - Kenneth A. Schau
Sylvania - Bruce E. Ralston 


Taylor - Mark X. Rigotti
Tecumseh - Sarah S. Eubanks
Three Rivers - Tom L. Muckel
Traverse City - Bruce E. Falberg
Traverse City - Scott C. Jones
Traverse City - Kenneth J. Knudsen
Tustin - Jerry A. Nelson 


Vicksburg - Neil E. Kreamalmeyer


Warren - Darrell Brown
Warren - Chad C. Davinich
Warren - Milissa A. Schell
Warren - Mark W. Sullwold
Williamsburg - Mark D. Stormzand
Wyandotte - Scott F. Neifert
Wyoming - Roger L. Bouma
Wyoming - Frits J. Hoekstra 


Ypsilanti - Thomas D. Biggs
Ypsilanti - Richard J. Mull 




Allen Park - Lisa S. Lee
Alma - Pamela J. Hanson-Bender
Alpena - Joseph M. Garant
Ann Arbor - Larry T. Kenyon 


Bay City - Kevin J. Sinicki
Blissfield - Ronald A. Gentz
Brooklyn - Charles A. Janke
Brownstown Township - Joseph C. Barzo
Brownstown Township - Jim M. Joseph
Buchanan - Francis M. Brown
Byron - David A. Czerniakowski 


Cadillac - Douglas E. McGiness
Cadillac - Kevin L. Taylor
Caledonia - David C. Dzierzyc
Carson City - Ted A. Kelly
Carson City - Arthur G. Kurtze III
Chesterfield - Douglas P. Stark
Clark Lake - John J. Jimenez
Clinton Township - Clifford S. Bliss
Coldwater - Brien S. Kelly
Coldwater - William M. Peiffer
Columbiaville - Donald W. Gordon 


Dearborn Heights - David P. Mann
Delton - Katherine R. Dolfman
Detroit - Darren F. Ford 


East Lansing - Douglas D. Ripley 


Farmington Hills - Jack G. Light
Farwell - Patrick H. Uhrig
Fenton - Dan A. Reason
Flushing - Neil T. McCarthy
Fraser - Thomas A. Suminski
Freeland - Dennis J. Argyle 


Gladstone - Jeffrey D. Diebolt
Grand Blanc - James M. Brigance
Grand Blanc - Michael E. Fair
Grand Blanc - David J. Griffel
Grand Rapids - Don L. Buchholz
Grand Rapids - Daryl S. Henderson
Grand Rapids - James F. Jakubowski
Grand Rapids - Scott W. Markham
Grayling - David K. Latusek 


Hamilton - John A. Wood
Hart - Victor N. Salazar
Haslett - Lisa M. Bain
Highland Park - Melvin D. George
Holland - Christine E. Durham
Holland - Kevin E. VanderHulst 


Iron Mountain - George D. Pond
Ithaca - Bradley D. Peet Sr. 


Jackson - Shawn C. Spitler
Jenison - Steven C. Warber 


Kalamazoo - Richard A. Hurdelbrink
Kalamazoo - Steven J. Nuyen
Kentwood - Christopher T. Maday
Kingsford - Mark E. Shanks 


Laingsburg - Thomas A. Rourke
Lansing - Justin E. Terry
Lansing - Amy L. Willing
Leonard - Thomas F. Kmita
Lincoln - Brad D. Cole


Macomb - Thomas M. Heabeart
Macomb - Kyle J. Plutschuck
Marquette - Bruce A. Tiseo
Marysville - W. Randy Jacobs
Mesick - Paul W. Osborne
Midland - Oliver G. Myers
Monroe - David H. Gelwicks
Monroe - John C. Hilken
Mt. Morris - Robert F. Sunday
Muskegon - Theo R. Burrel
Muskegon - Timothy A. Cook 


New Boston - Wayne C. Hamilton
Newport - Glen A. Scafidi
North Muskegon - Daniel L. Millhisler
Northville - Robert P. Juhasz 


Olivet - Lonnie L. Spencer
Onsted - William M. Bayko
Onsted - Robert Wright
Ortonville - Franklin E. Olson
Owosso - Gary W. Barta 


Port Sanilac - Dan Dean 


Ray - Danny P. Kuskowski
Riverview - Benjamin Madero
Romulus - A. Terry Brinston
Royal Oak - Ronald G. Buchanan


Saginaw - Daniel L. Houston Sr.
Saginaw - Robert C. Kubczak
Saline - Kirk D. Spangler
Scottville - Stacey R. Swiatlowski
Shelby Township - Lawrence Gerbe
Shelby Township - Jeffrey P. Sandora
Sidney - James R. White
South Bend - David P. Sexton
Southfield - Anthony W. Johnson
St. Clair Shores - John W. Hartley Jr.
St. Joseph - Patrick J. Clark
Stalwart - Barbra A. Storey
Sumner - Jeff D. Rowley 


Three Rivers - Bruce E. Mastny
Traverse City - James P. Barbera
Traverse City - Peter J. Garthe 


Vassar - Matthew J. Cox
Vassar - Mark A. Schoenow 


Washington Township - Peter J. Friedrich
Westland - Richard W. Kus
Westland - Thomas E. Mallon
Wixom - Lawrence W. Grant
Wyandotte - David A. Maloney 




Bad Axe - Paul A. Binder
Berkley - Sheila M. Homic
Blissfield - Christopher L. Bates
Brimley - Jerald P. Cook 


Calumet - Daniel W. Junttila
Champion - Gary P. O'Brien
Clarksville - Jim D. Johnson 


Dearborn Heights - Kevin P. Kabacinski
Decatur - Patrick L. Boitnott
Delta - William H. Wiseman
Detroit - James E. Briggs
Dundee - Karl J. Schmidt 


Farmington Hills - Mark J. Kronk
Ferndale - Bradford D. Skauge
Flint - James V. Newell
Fremont - James M. Goorhouse
Fruitport - George L. Frederick 


Gaylord - Paul B. Holmes
Grand Blanc - Douglas W. Tipton
Grand Haven - Richard W. Lott
Grosse Pointe Woods - Robert E. Zaranek 

Harbor Beach - Steven M. Linn
Hillsdale - Bruce Caswell
Hudson - Fred C. Bowers
Hudson - Patrick W. Wollet
Hudsonville - Bob C. Wojcik 

Iron Mountain - John R. Pucci

Kalamazoo - James L. Ketelaar

Lansing - Sam L. Davis
Lansing - Eric D. Wills
Lansing - Donald J. Yuvan
Ludington - David L. Wright 

Madison Heights - Marie S. Bessler
Madison Heights - Richard Hillman
Manistee - David A. Nemecek
Marshall - David N. Benham
Marysville - Joel P. Venia
Mattawan - David W. Breithaupt
Muskegon - Charles M. VanDongen 

Niles - Michael J. Nate

Okemos - John H. Garrison
Onsted - Kathi Frank 

Pinckney - David D. Sontag

Redford - Gregory J. Smetek
Richland - Thomas D. Cox
Rockford - Timothy G. Erickson 

Saginaw - Roberta A. Beyerlein
Scottville - Rodney D. Marshall 

Temperance - Randall A. Sehl
Trenton - Frederick L. Bruley

Vicksburg - Timothy A. Baker

Waterford - Douglas E. Zimmerman
West Bloomfield - Benjamin R. Armstrong
Westland - Donna J. Strang 

Zeeland - Marvin F. Hinga


Ann Arbor - Jack L. Coffey

Battle Creek - Kendall A. Lewis
Bay City - Thomas F. Cole
Berrien Springs - Timothy A. Krieger
Boyne City - Kirk D. Kujawski
Brighton - Bill T. Rubin
Brownstown Township - Joseph A. McCormick 

Caledonia - Edward T. Hedgecock
Caledonia - Tom A. Hoffman
Canton - John A. Davidson
Caseville - Barry L. Zinger
Clark Lake - Robert L. McComb Jr.
Clarkston - Eugene R. English Jr.
Clarksville - David A. Mersman
Clawson - Betty A. Wroubel 

Detroit - Lawrence D. Freeman
Detroit - Billy L. Waters
Dowagiac - William L. Brooks 

Flushing - Edwin H. McKimmy

Grand Rapids - Robert G. Galvin
Grand Rapids - Dirk E. Pegman
Grand Rapids - Jeanne L. Skinner
Grayling - Thomas A. Kemp
Grosse Ile - James R. Knopp 

Haslett - David E. Gillison
Hemlock - Rudy Godefroidt
Howell - L. Lee Piepho
Howell - Dennis M. Troshak

Ironwood - James K. Krznarich

Jackson - Michael C. French 

Kent City - Robert J. Sarachman
Kentwood - Betty J. Near 

Lansing - Ken J. Sudall 

Manistee - Michael J. Gielczyk
Manton - Burton Harrison
Marysville - Mark A. Brochu
Mason - Victor T. Cena
Michigan Center - Charles D. Sprang
Muskegon - James A. Goorman 

Negaunee - Steven R. Ayotte

Ontonagon - Eugene Fiszer

Pittsford - Chuck Pelham

Rogers City - Gerald Purgiel
Royal Oak - Carol A. Sheldon 

Smiths Creek - Jud D. Kastner
Southfield - Thomas R. Sullivan Jr.
St. Clair Shores - Thomas L. Driscoll
St. Clair Shores - Fusako Hines 

Taylor - Terry H. Styer
Tekonsha - Daniel A. Washburn
Trenton - Robert Bolak
Trenton - Evelyn Langlands 

Vicksburg - Richard L. Simon 

Whitmore Lake - Charles E. Lindsay
Wyandotte - Michael R. McMahon 


Byron Center - Joe A. Zomerlei

Cheboygan - William B. Watkins
Clio - Anthony J. Leonardo
Custer - Edward C. Miller 

Essexville - Donald A. Rose Sr. 

Hudson - Michael A. McCullough 

Ishpeming - David J. St. Onge

Kingsford - Joseph R. Reddinger 

Lowell - Curtis J. Cummings 

Monroe - Albert M. Fernandez
Muskegon - Larry T. Vaandering 

New Baltimore - James C. Cleverley 

Okemos - Tom Woiwode
Onsted - John M. Springer 

Redford - Robert J. Williams
Royal Oak - Paul M. Engelberts 

Saginaw - Hugh R. Matson
Sanford - Charles P. Russian
Shelby Township - Frank A. Talerico 

Vassar - H. Dan Johnson 

Walker - Dennis J. Rothenthaler
Waterford - Burton Hurshe
Wyoming - Daniel J. Schultz

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.