Not Just Another Season for Watson

May 3, 2018

By Cody Porter
NFHS High School Today 

A 32-second response by emergency medical technicians was the difference in life or death for 68-year-old Willie Watson, who was spared from becoming another victim of sudden cardiac arrest.

Watson, a 38-year official for the Michigan High School Athletic Association, collapsed in the tunnel near the officials’ locker room after the Division 6 Football Final at Ford Field last Nov. 25 in Detroit. Fortunately for the Kalamazoo native, stadium staff members were steps away as he fell unconscious. Within seconds, their call for help reached on-site EMTs who swiftly made their way to him from the field.

“It was strange because I wasn’t sick or anything. I drove to the game by myself. Everything was fine, got dressed, and then went out on the field for the game,” Watson said. “After the game, I came to the locker room, had a boxed lunch, and the last thing I remember is leaving towards the tunnel. That’s the last thing that I remember. I woke up in the hospital the next day, on Saturday.”

Moments before Watson’s dire situation occurred, he stood in the officials’ locker room speaking with Mark Uyl, the MHSAA assistant director who coordinates officials. Uyl said when he received the call regarding Watson, he arrived to find paramedics administering full CPR, in addition to using an automated external defibrillator (AED).

“It was a scene right out of a movie,” Uyl said.

After about 10 minutes of work on Watson, Uyl said paramedics found a pulse and promptly transported him to Detroit Medical Center.

“Things were very critical that Friday night – very touch and go,” Uyl said. “Overnight we got reports that he was slowly improving.”

An implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) was placed in Watson’s chest. The pager-sized device is battery powered and placed below the skin to monitor heart rate, according to the American Heart Association. If an abnormal heart rhythm is discovered, the ICD delivers an electric shock to restore a normal heartbeat.

“I got to witness an absolute miracle,” Uyl said. “If the cardiac situation doesn’t happen literally at the feet of the medical staff that we have on-site at an event like that, he would’ve gotten up to the concourse or, heaven forbid, outside the building into the parking lot or his car and I believe it would’ve been a much more tragic ending.”

Watson was working the third game of the day as a line judge, and when he collapsed, was beginning to leave the facility and head to a local hotel reserved for MHSAA officials. Uyl told Watson how much of a blessing it was that he was assigned that game. At home or at the hotel, Watson would have been alone without access to proper medical attention.

“Certainly, where we got lucky is where he collapsed,” Uyl said. “We have emergency procedures, but when we’re at one of our college or pro venues, we often use the building’s plan. It could not have been more seamless between our staff and the Ford Field building personnel.”

At MHSAA events, such as those at Ford Field, an ambulance and two EMTs are stationed on the field next to the tunnel that connects it to the other areas of the stadium. Watson said he and fellow officials routinely confirm the location of emergency responders before starting a game.

“Schools almost always have somebody from a university around who does training. Most schools have ambulance service there at the site,” Watson said. “There have been incidences where we have had injuries that require them to come out onto the field to assist a student-athlete. It could be a concussion, a leg injury or who knows. We always have somebody at a venue.”

Equipped with his ICD, Watson left for home a week later from Detroit Medical Center. Expecting to make a full recovery, Watson said the only recommendations from his doctors were to tweak his diet and increase exercise. Although he said his recovery is on track, one of the most notable effects from his incident was memory loss.

“The strange thing is that I cannot remember a single thing about the game. I can’t remember anything,” Watson said. “If you ask me what Ford Field looked like now, I couldn’t tell you. I lost my short-term memory. I remember everything except the game. It’s those 48 minutes that I can’t remember.”

An official in basketball, softball and volleyball as well, staying active won’t be too much of an issue for Watson, who said he took last basketball season off to get himself better prepared for the softball season.

“It’s just amazing how quickly they responded in my situation. Regardless of who it is, the response time I received was tremendous,” Watson said. “I was out. They had to revive me. It only took them 32 seconds to get to me. Even if it’s an injured player on the field, response times are getting so quick.”

PHOTO: Official Willie Watson signals a touchdown during the 2016 MHSAA Division 6 Final at Ford Field.

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.