The Official View: The Crossroad We Face
By Brent Rice
MHSAA Assistant Director
December 20, 2021
It’s time to call it what it is … a major crossroad and tipping point.
For more than a decade, the numbers of registered MHSAA officials have steadily declined from a high of about 13,000 to, today, around 7,700. While the COVID pandemic has certainly exacerbated those figures over the last two seasons, two of the top reasons officials give for leaving the avocation remains adult spectators and coach behavior.
School sports and traditional recreational programs have been supplemented, and in some cases, supplanted, by travel and club programs that, more often than not, do not share the same values and standards expected in education-based athletics. Many of these non-school programs require parents to spend exorbitant amounts in registrations fees, travel, lodging and meals with the implicit suggestion that this is the gateway to Division I college and professional sports. The result is that the criticisms hurled at the officials are more than an overzealous parent wanting a fair-called game – it is stakeholders defending their investments.
While we are often disturbed by some of the events documented during these club and travel contests, the real concern is that this permitted conduct has begun to seep into the school sports world. The result is that officials are simply walking away, leaving increasingly more games being moved or cancelled due to the lack of officials. The games that are being played are often staffed with smaller crews – perhaps two officials instead of three. Officials are in place to provide athletes with safe and fair opportunities to play sports, and shorthanded crews may reduce the ability for officials to see and call plays and fouls. These potential missed calls incite more disparaging comments from spectators, thus pushing more officials away from sports. This cycle cannot be sustainable much longer.
So, what are the solutions, and who do they come from?
The first is spectators. We refer to this as the difference between the whistle and the airhorn. When spectators just feel compelled to be vocally critical, they should make certain that their criticisms are infrequent, brief and not personal. Spectators should be the whistle and not the airhorn. Other spectators have a responsibility to set a good example and call out those who are going overboard.
School administrators also play a critical role in ensuring that officials are able to do their job in a safe and secure setting. Administrators should look for escalating situations in the stands and diffuse them before they become abusive. No one wants to remove parents and other spectators from events; but frankly, more of that needs to be done to show that inappropriate conduct and behavior will not be tolerated.
Finally, MHSAA officials need to be the first line of defense against unsportsmanlike behavior. This should be penalized when observed from coaches or players, without concern to the consequences that student or coach will later face. In short, bad behavior cannot be tolerated. Conduct found in the MHSAA Personal Attack Policy should result in an immediate ejection/disqualification, and similar conduct that occurs after the game should be handled as provided in the Post-Contest Ejection Policy. Unaddressed bad behavior by coaches and players encourages the same from spectators.
MHSAA game officials should focus their attention to the competition on the playing surface. This means that most comments from the stands should be ignored, and an official should never engage with critical spectators. This is not to say that officials must take abuse from spectators. If the language or behavior becomes a distraction to the contest, or personal and vulgar language is directed at the officials, the officials have the authority to have spectators removed from the facility (and should do so). No need for a big spectacle, ejection mechanic or yelling into the stands to engage fans. They should simply stop the contest and have the administrator on site remove the unruly spectator from the game.
There are a number of other factors contributing to the decline of officials that also need to be addressed. Low game fees, substandard locker room accommodations, unmanageable game times, and assigner and association politics all play a part. Those all pale in comparison to the main reason cited: Misbehavior by adults. MHSAA officials will inevitably continue to miss calls. That’s the nature of what they do. However, without them the games cannot be played, which means opportunities for Michigan students will also decline. We all have a responsibility to see that school sports remain closely tied to the values of educational athletics and maintain scope and perspective. We all must do better; otherwise, the crossroads of the officials shortage will only get worse.
Postseason Assignments: Winter sport officials need to pay close attention to the changes for postseason consideration in effect this school year. Officials in most sports must opt into tournament consideration. This means officials this season for basketball, competitive cheer, gymnastics, ice hockey and wrestling must submit their availability on the MHSAA website – otherwise, the default is that they are unavailable. This is in addition to other postseason requirements such as completion of the rules meeting, the tournament exam and submission of the official’s regular-season schedule through the MHSAA website. These requirements are due by Dec. 15 for wrestling, Jan. 5 for basketball, Jan. 12 for competitive cheer and ice hockey, Jan. 19 for gymnastics and Jan. 26 for boys swimming & diving.
Seeking Committee Members: We are reconvening an ad hoc committee of educators/officials to assist with the development of curriculum that can be utilized by school districts for officiating classes in conjunction with the MHSAA Legacy Officials Program.
If you’re interested in serving on this committee (some in-person, but mostly virtual) and have a background as an educator, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Know Your Rules
BASKETBALL As Team A is preparing to make a throw-in from the end line, Team A players #15, #20 and #3 stand shoulder-to-shoulder next to each other immediately in front of the thrower. Team B player #11 requests to stand between two of the A players before the throw-in.
RULING Within three feet on the court from the throw-in, Team B players will be permitted to stand between the Team A players, if requested. If the Team A players were positioned more than three feet from the throw-in, this request would be denied.
It’s Your Call
REVIEW The play from the last It’s Your Call (found here) involved ball-handling by a back row volleyball player. Following a good dig by her teammate, the back row player appears to make contact with her left hand then right hand with her overhead pass. Since this is not the first contact on her side, the contact with the ball must be simultaneous with both hands. This is a multiple contact and a loss of point against white.
WRESTLING For the first time, the MHSAA will introduce a Girls Division into this year’s Individual Wrestling Finals. The following “It’s Your Call” takes place in a girls match but is applicable to the sport as a whole. Review the brief clip and let us know your thoughts. What’s the call?
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.