The Right Stuff at the Right Time

October 19, 2012

By Rob Kaminski
MHSAA benchmarks editor

MHSAA Championship history is filled with unforgettable moments for participants and spectators alike. Every now and then, the contest on the biggest stage delivers the cliche’ finish of everyone's dreams: close game, final seconds, trophy on the line, someone’s gotta win, someone’s gotta lose.

For the three teams out there, it’s as exciting as it gets. Yes, three teams. For every classic crunch-time moment, there are officials who have earned the right to share that moment with the participants.

Following, benchmarks reflects on two such moments from the viewpoints of those in stripes.

Ford Field, Detroit, Nov. 24, 2006
Muskegon (13-0) vs. Warren DeLaSalle (11-2)
At Stake: MHSAA Division 2 Football Title

Officials: Referee Charles Sprang (3rd MHSAA Final); Umpire Mike Wallace (1st); Linesman Troy Miller (2nd); Line Judge Reginald Smith (1st); Back Judge Trenton Withrow (1st)

THE MOMENT: DeLaSalle trails 32-30 with time running out, when QB Brian Lewis completes a slant pass to Don Fowler. Fowler is into the clear and headed for the end zone when he is hit by Muskegon’s Ronald Johnson at the 4-yard line, and stretches for the end zone. The ball pops loose, Fowler’s knee goes down, and Muskegon’s Bobby Miller recovers the ball in the end zone within a few furious seconds. The Big Reds get the ball, the undefeated season, and the championship.

Withrow: “They were in a hurry-up on the last drive and the game, which was fast-paced the entire time, got even faster. When the receiver got into the open, I knew I had to get back to the goal line and keep my eyes on the play. That was the first thing on my mind; if I don’t get to the goal line, I can’t make that call.

“Immediately after I made the call (correctly, a fumble and touchback), I just remember chills down my spine, the DeLaSalle kids trying to argue that he was down, and hoping I got it right. We don’t have the luxury of replay. It was a bang-bang call; knee coming down, lost ball, goal line right there.”

Smith: “As the play took place, I was telling myself not to rush, but be precise in my call. Just move in to box the play with Trent and watch for the ball at all times as the play developed.”

Sprang:  “I did not see the fumble as I was about 60 yards up field.  I got to Trent and said, ‘What do you have?’  Trent said, ‘Touchback.’ Mike Wallace asked, ‘Are you sure?’ Trent never wavered and said, ‘He never got in the end zone with the ball. It was out at the 1.’ I asked again, ‘Are you sure?’ Trent said, ‘No doubt.’ Trent, as I saw on film, was in perfect position.  That call was the game and he nailed it.”

Miller: “It was great that Reggie and Trent spent very little time communicating and they had the same ruling. Being on the Warren DeLaSalle sideline, I explained to the head coach what we had and there was really no reaction, as I believe he saw exactly what Trent had seen, and knew that Trent was in great position.”

Wallace: “I just remember seeing the play from a distance as I was the umpire. I  saw the call and just said to myself, ‘I hope that was the right call.’  I didn't have any doubt,  but just didn't want a call missed at that point in the game.  The call was so smooth, as if he had made the call a hundred times.

“Moments afterward I just remember telling him ‘That was a heck-of-a-call,’ and I was not even sure if he got it right or not.”

Withrow: “I’ll never forget when Mike came running down the field, he said, ‘That’s why I’m glad I’m the umpire; so I don’t have to make that call.’

“Chuck and I discussed it, and he just wanted to make sure of what I saw; I told him exactly what happened, and then he repeated the signal.”

Sprang: “At every opportunity, we talked about ‘staying in the game.’ Muskegon had a two touchdown lead twice in the game and DeLaSalle fought back each time to either tie or go ahead. I am not sure if Mike Wallace had a crystal ball, but he said, ‘One play is gonna win this game, be ready.’”

Miller: “I remember walking up the tunnel going back to the locker room and walking past a reporter from one of the Detroit papers and having him say, ‘Nice job guys, that was a great call.’”

Sprang: “I knew at that point Trent had it right and the replay only confirmed it.  When I saw the replay, it sure was a great feeling to see that ball pop out at the 1-yard line and Trent on the goal line with his bean bag.  He made four other guys on the field that day look very, very good.”

Withrow: “Looking at the replay, I was surprised my bean bag came out, because I didn't remember that during the play. It’s a reaction, and I just relied on mechanics. If you do all the right things mechanically, you’ll be in position to make the calls, and it certainly paid off at that moment.”

Wallace: “In the locker room it felt like we just went 15 rounds with Apollo Creed and we were still standing.  We knew that we all worked hard, concentrated and nailed it.  Maybe it was just that one  call, but it was an incredible feeling of success that you strive for when you officiate.”

Breslin Center, East Lansing, March 27, 1999
Muskegon Western Michigan Christian (25-2) vs. Detroit City (22-3)
At Stake: MHSAA Class D Boys Basketball Title

Officials: Dick Kalahar (4th MHSAA Boys Final),  Mike Robillard (2nd), Tim Belt (1st)

THE MOMENT:  Game tied, clock ticking down, as  Muskegon Western Michigan Christian’s Nick Bultema uses a screen and goes airborne to launch a last-second three-point shot. The ball is tipped by Detroit City’s Michael Williams, but momentum takes his body into Bultema’s before the shooter reaches the floor. Foul. 0:00 on the clock. Bultema makes the second free throw, and secures the title.

Kalahar: “I was the trail official, and as the clock  was winding down I was looking for a three-point shot, as Detroit City’s defense on the inside was very good. As the player (Bultema) attempted the shot, a very big Detroit City player tried to block the shot. The WMC shooter was still in the air after releasing the ball, when the Detroit City player contacted the shooter and drove him into the table at press row.

“I made a foul call on the Detroit City player just before the horn went off. Before I went to the table to report the foul, I met with Mike and Tim to confirm the foul was called before time ran out. We all agreed there would be three shots given to the WMC player.”

Robillard: “I knew going into the game I was with two outstanding officials, and we would handle any situations that might occur. As the game was getting into the final minutes I was hoping for overtime because both teams had competed so hard and the game had such a great flow.”

Kalahar: “I reported the foul and explained to the table what we were going to do. I also called both head coaches together to explain what the call was and how we would proceed. Both coaches were gentlemen.”

Robillard: “As the end of the game approached, our crew communication was outstanding. We knew we had to be out on the perimeter and protect the shooters. So when the left-handed shooter pulled up behind the three-point arc, both Dick and I had him booked in. It was Dick's primary, but I was doubling back to protect the backside of the shooter. As soon as the defender ran into the shooter, Dick nailed the whistle.”

Kalahar: “Experience always helps. Trying to anticipate what might happen as well as good concentration in a game like this comes with experience. Having two good partners is also a key.

“As we entered the locker room, much to my surprise, Jack Roberts, Nate Hampton and Tom Minter of the MHSAA office were there. I will always remember their support. Our crew then talked about the game, and felt we gave the teams a good game. Mike or Tim told me they thought the last call took courage and they were proud to be a part of this crew.

“I had some very anxious moments the first time I saw the replay. As officials, we always want to get the call right, especially in a game like this. I've seen it many times, and to this day I believe the right and fair call was made.”

PHOTOS: (Top) Warren DeLaSalle's Don Fowler loses control of the ball just before reaching the goalline during the 2006 Division 2 Final at Ford Field. (Middle) Muskegon Western Michigan Christian's Nick Bultema is about to be engulfed by a teammate moments after sinking the winning free throw during the 1999 Class D Final at the Breslin Center. 

NOTE: This is the fourth installment in the series "Making – and Answering – the Call" detailing the careers and service of MHSAA officials. Click the links below to view the others.

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.