Comets Tales: Off-ice Officials

by Don Laible

Jul 6, 2015

At every American Hockey League game there are three to four officials on the ice at all times. Everyone knows that. Did you know there are about a dozen more officials at every game? Take a look at the pressbox above section 205 next year, chances are you’ll be surprised what goes on up there.

They, the off-ice official crew, are an all-volunteer crew. To borrow a tried and true cliché, each off-ice official contributes to officially registering what they see- for the love of the game.

What 14 members do at each game isn’t glamorous or exciting enough to have fans talking about their job performance, and that’s the way they like it.

Their story is as important as those who wear the striped jerseys keeping the peace and integrity of the game on the ice. The magic created by the players is recorded and verified by the crew.

The game day experience for these vital, and mandated by the league, highly hockey astute individuals, begins just as all other participants who are in support of the night’s contest.

It’s not widely publicized, but it’s also no secret. At the strike of 5pm on Comets game day, near Gate 8 are where the off-ice officials welcome in their night’s work. Down the stairs, just to the left, at the bottom are two large, heavy black doors. Inside are where media members, scouts, equipment staff (both teams),visiting coaches, and off-ice officials are able to have a pre-game meal, courtesy of the Comets.

This room, which requires all who enter to sign in and announce their affiliations, also serves as an unofficial meeting haunt of the off-ice officials. One by one, almost predictably on time for each game, the familiar faces enter. Among the half dozen large round tables covered in black, each crew member sits and begin to catch up on their day’s activities.

They are identified with the black pullovers bearing the AHL logo being worn. A couple zig from their partners, by wearing blue blazers and sweaters, complete with AHL patches sewn on. Little, if any, is spoken about the evening’s game that they are assigned. It is camaraderie at its best. From listening to their conversations, most are parents and grandparents. Many work in professions no different from those purchasing tickets.

Who they are won’t be disclosed. Calls made in games that are reversed shouldn’t come back to any individual or the crew as a whole. Anonymity is a necessary evil. What they do, and how they put the official AHL stamp of approval on each Comets game, deserves to go public.

Before heading out of the media room and beginning his night’s work, the crew’s chief casually explains the importance of the off-ice officials works.

“There are 14 of us; from those on on-ice, the timekeeper, goal judges, penalty box timekeepers to those in the press box, the official statistician, the shot keepers, and the time on ice officials,” says the official who has been serving in this capacity dating back to the Utica Devils. “We love the game, and wanted to get involved. We have a pool of tickets each game, and on a first-come, first-serve basis they are distributed.”

It’s a given that from when the final horn is heard after a Comets home game, until the evening’s statistics are official, the off-ice official speaking doesn’t leave The AUD for at least an hour. Each crew member is cross-trained, and for good reason. Even on game nights, real life situations occur, and members may not be able to assume their positions.

It’s not uncommon to hear the officials speaking of “who can’t make it tonight”, or that the crew will be short-handed for the evening. Like a show at a theatre the game must go on, and crew members valiantly and enthusiastically take to the positions assigned.

Look around before a Comets game is about to start. There are the two goal judges. At the on ice level, each penalty box has two officials to man the doors and help with tracking assists. Keeping PA announcer Tom Coyne company between the boxes are three more officials. One is the liaison between the on-ice officials, one mans the replay system, and another operates the scoreboard. Back over to the other side of The AUD, high atop Section 205, are another seven working members.

“The Desk” is a sub-culture in of its own. A power strip is full to capacity, generating power to computers. Members are able to document what they are watching, with less than a handful of goose-neck lamps, carefully clamped to whatever is available. This is all the light illuminating. This mobile unit attacks their assignments with the utmost professionalism.

At the drop of the puck, there’s constant chatter. Lots of chatter, often loud, so those who need to know what players are on the ice, can hear. It could come across as chaotic noise, similar to that shouted on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Chaotic to some, is organized information to others.

Off-ice officials keep busy during each game. Goals, assists, time on ice, shots, and plus/minus are a handful of the stats that are being documented for each and every player. Like a well-oiled machine, between each period game sheets and time on ice tracking sheets are brought to the coaches offices. Within minutes of the last skater leaving the ice, the crew’s chief hands off the up-to-the-second game sheets to a press box attendant, who in turns passes around copies to members of the media covering the game, as well as to all scouts assigned.

At the end of the night, the final game sheet is brought to the on-ice official’s room for the referee(s) to sign. Once this takes place, this finalizes (officially) the game. For the most part, the Comets’ off-ice officials are veterans of their current duties. Three or four began as crew members for Utica Devils games more than two decades ago, and several split duties between the Comets and the Syracuse Crunch.

Before arriving at The AUD on game day, often without a break, the off-ice officials come from their day jobs. A quick survey reveals a postal worker, contractor, and even a sheriff’s deputy. Their hockey adventure began with a call to the team’s office expressing interest in getting involved, who then were put in touch with one of the crew chiefs.

They live in nearby communities. Remsen, Marcy, a couple from Ilion, off-ice officials are fans with an official purpose at each home game. When studying their habits, on cue, it is easy to detect when their “game on” kicks in and the fan in them takes a back seat. When taking positions for a night’s work, think TV shots of assistant coaches in press boxes at any NFL game, and this is a mental image of the Comets’ off-ice officials.

There are no applause, no pats on their backs for a night’s work well done. There is little or no acknowledgement at all. This is expected. But for 36 regular season games at The AUD, they are the keepers of hockey history in Utica, and in the American Hockey League.

One official tells how he was literally pulled out of his seat during a Utica Blizzard game and immediately enlisted to be a crew member.

“I was a season ticket holder. During this particular game, the crew was short a man to work the penalty box. They asked if I would be interested in working the game.” The rest, as they say, is history to a man who now is a curator for it.

Synchronized. Everything about what they do and how they do it is timed, and obviously routine. It must be. Their dedication is obvious. The next time you see the players take to AUD ice, think Section 205, 37 steps up, and around the rink. Just as pucks, pads, helmets, and fans, off-ice officials are as an important ingredient to the success of each Comets home game.

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