History of the NHL Officials' Equipment

Monday, January 20, 2003

You don’t have to be a hockey insider to realize how technology has affected The National Hockey League over the years. It seems as if no other major sport has embraced technological change as much as the sport of hockey. From the palatial new arenas seemingly from the space age to advanced ice making technology resulting in superior ice surfaces, board systems that are designed to flex when players are hit into them, new seamless glass that provides fans with an unobstructed view, laser light shows during introductions and intermissions, and video replays that have multiple angles in which to judge a play, even the casual hockey fan can see how technology has changed over the years. The facet of the game that technology has arguably had the greatest affect on, however, has been in the equipment of the people who play the game. Today’s equipment is lighter, stronger, more comfortable and longer lasting than ever before. Each new year brings advanced hockey technology to the mainstream. Players are now using one piece carbon composite sticks, skates that are lighter, stiffer, and most notably more comfortable than could ever have been imagined, along with headgear in the form of helmets and visors that are also lighter, stronger and more protective than ever. Even looking back just ten years ago, equipment that was considered cutting edge is now obsolete. Equipment used thirty or forty years ago looks like something out of a museum of ancient history. Although the bulk of research and development into equipment technology undoubtedly goes into products for the player, these advances in technology have not been lost on the men who officiate in The National Hockey League.

The equipment that NHL officials use has undergone astounding changes over the years. Wally Harris, an National Hockey League referee from 1963 to 1983 and supervisor of officials from 1985 to 2002, has certainly seen a change in officiating equipment from his early days in the league to today. “When I started, we wore a set of foam basketball knee pads to cover our knees and a set of thin soccer style shin pads to protect our shins. Along with a cup, that is the only protective equipment we had under our uniform.” Harris said. He added, “Someone then had the idea to wear baseball catcher style shin pads with a hard plastic outer shell to protect the front of the leg. I also had softer foam padding strapped to the back of my leg to protect the calf muscle. Eventually equipment companies realized a need for specialized officiating equipment and soon we were supplied with better equipment.” “The style of play was different in the NHL back then, you should realize,” Harris explained, “It was more of a possession game. The dump and chase style was not used as it is today. Players possessed the puck longer back then, unlike today where pucks are ripped high and hard off of the glass in an effort to clear the puck out of the zone. It is a wonder today’s officials are not injured more the way the puck flies around out there.” Pat Shetler, a NHL linesman from 1966 until 1972, echoed Wally’s sentiments. “When I started with the NHL we received two pairs of skates, two uniform sweaters, and two uniform pants at training camp. I wore a pair of foam type pads to cover my knees and a set of leather wrestling knee pads below them for protection of my shins,” Shetler said, “That was it.” Back in those days, they wore no thigh pads, no hip pads, no elbow pads, no helmet, no visor. “We took some vicious hits from players, some wicked shots from pucks and sometimes they hurt like heck but we tried our best not to show the pain.” Shetler explained. “Our thoughts were the less we wore, the lighter we were, the faster we could move and therefore the better we could work.” Shetler, a veteran of the rough and tumble days of the NHL in the late sixties and early seventies, when fighting was commonplace, also added, “Our uniform sweaters were different than they are today, different materials. Today a linesman gets some blood on a sweater from breaking up a fight, he can run it under a faucet and the blood will immediately wash away. When I was working I do not remember a night that I did not have to soak my sweater overnight in the hotel sink to get the stains out.” A gruesome thought, but it was a fact of life for officials of that era.

Luckily, improvements in official’s equipment have made life much easier for today’s officials. Much like the improvements made in player’s equipment, today’s officials equipment is lighter, stronger, more protective, and much more comfortable than the equipment used previously. NHL officials are also wearing much more equipment than in previous years. They are protected by pads that cover the shins, calf muscles, knees, hips, thighs, hamstrings, elbows, lower back, and kidneys. Some officials also wear flak jackets to protect the rib cage and torso. It may seem like a lot of protective gear for a game official to be wearing but today’s official needs that added protection to stay safe and healthy when doing his job. Today’s NHL players are bigger, faster, and stronger than ever, and with today’s stick technology, collectively, they are shooting the puck harder than ever. The game of hockey at the NHL level has always been a physical, fast-paced game, and with new rules aimed to allow highly skilled players showcase their talent, today’s game seems to flow with incredible quickness and blazingly fast speed. All of this adds up to one heck of a dangerous work environment.

Due to a competitive equipment marketplace, today’s NHL official also has many options when deciding what wear to protect himself from the rigors of his work. There are now many hockey equipment manufacturers producing many different types of official’s equipment. Every year equipment manufacturers send representatives to NHL officials training camp to help cater to the needs of the men who will be using their gear. Each equipment manufacturer now produces several styles of each specific type of padding. NHL officials can decide what type of equipment best suits their need and they can pick and choose what they like from a vast array of options. The equipment that National Hockey League officials wear mimics the padding that the players wear but is generally lighter, more flexible, and more compact. The skates and headgear that NHL officials wear is, in most cases, exactly what the players are wearing in The National Hockey League. Equipment manufacturers make sure that NHL officials are supplied with the most technologically advanced skates, helmets, and visors available. Many officials now have their skates custom made for the best fit possible. NHL officials order their equipment for each new season just as the previous regular season ends. They do this by filling out an equipment requisition that specifies exactly what equipment they want. The officiating office of the NHL compiles the orders and each official receives his equipment order at training camp. The scene sometimes brings up images of Christmas in September with over seventy officials, several equipment representatives, a handful of supervisors, and a truckloads of brand new equipment is shoved into a meeting room or a gymnasium. Everything is extremely well organized, the equipment is distributed, and all of the officials leave happy with a sack full of new equipment for the upcoming year. Every NHL official is supplied with the equipment that he needs to be able to perform at his highest level. Things certainly have changed since the days of receiving a couple of pairs of skates and a uniform.

One point that some officials disagree on is what wear to protect their heads: a helmet, a visor… neither? Kerry Fraser, probably the league’s most easily recognized referee, does not wear a helmet and presently has no plans to put one on. “When I started with the NHL back in 1973, officials did not wear helmets,” Fraser explains, “It is what I am used to and I feel I my awareness is increased without a helmet.” This is not to say Fraser did not ever try wearing a helmet. “Back in November of 1991, Tom Webster, then coach of the Los Angeles Kings, threw a stick at me from the bench, javelin style,” Fraser said, “After that occurred, I thought to myself that there are just some things you can not anticipate when you are on the ice and maybe it would be the smart thing to protect myself and put on a helmet.” That experiment lasted about a month and resulted in a once again helmetless Kerry Fraser. “I felt like it slowed down my reaction time and reduced my peripheral vision.” Kerry explained, “It felt even worse in Nagano when we wore helmets and visors.” Kerry was referring to Nagano, Japan in 1998, when he was selected to work the Olympic Games. Kerry says he is much more comfortable and confident when he is on the ice with out a helmet. “Much like when the ‘blind man’ (no pun intended) is able to develop extra senses to help compensate for his blindness, I feel that I am more keenly aware of what is happening around me and can anticipate and react to possible trouble.” Kerry concluded. One person that has a different view on this subject would be NHL referee Blaine Angus. For the past four seasons, Blaine has worn both a helmet and a visor when officiating. “I had some major facial injuries when I was working without a visor,” Blaine explained, “I decided that the smart thing to do was to protect myself and wear a visor.” Before wearing the visor Blaine sustained several serious facial injuries from flying pucks and sticks, including a broken orbital bone near his eye and an injury that required facial surgery. “Coming up through the ranks as a referee in the Ontario Hockey League, helmets and visors are mandatory for officials,” Angus explains, “It has not been much of an adjustment for me to go back to wearing a visor.”

Equipment that the referees and linesmen of the National Hockey League use sure has changed over the years. Technology has increased the fit, feel, and protectiveness of today’s equipment while reducing its weight and bulkiness. The equipment of today enables officials to perform at the highest level possible while feeling secure about the fact that they are wearing the safest and most protective equipment the hockey world has to offer. Officiating in the National Hockey League sure is one tough job but having the proper equipment to be able to work at the level required gives the referees and linesmen of the NHL one less thing to think about as they hit the ice.

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