A week in the life...

Monday, December 01, 2008

Day 1 Thursday 8:30 am Southern California

Off to school we go, – like millions of parents, I load up the kids from the neighborhood carpool, give my incredibly understanding wife a long, lingering kiss and make the short trip to school. I delay as I hug my daughters and like parents everywhere, wonder where has the time gone? As we pull up to the school, I accept my fate, a mixture of melancholy and love from your child – the kiss and hug they give when they know you won’t be there to tuck them in that night. However, that’s part of the deal; away they go and away I go prepared to put my heart and mind through the grinder as I leave my family for another venture into the Matrix.

It is the Matrix because like the movie it really is a parallel fantasy world, that only a few can be lucky enough to understand, the day to day grind of the life of an NHL official, abstractly devoid of the immediate day to day responsibility of a husband, father, parent and friend with a singular focus on the game. Focus, focus, focus; we can never lose our focus. NHL Officials are a team without home games, always working in a hostile environment, away from family and friends, we can lose much but we gain much when we pursue our careers; the conundrum of working parents across the land.

Today, I travel to Washington for a game tomorrow night. Living on the west coast, I have to leave early in the day in order to get to the east coast by that night so I can properly prepare for the games ahead. This trip is a demanding four games in five days encompassing Washington, Montreal, Philadelphia, and Columbus before heading home in time to pick the kids up from school next week. Six nights, seven flights, two countries, thousands of air miles, and countless thrills, chills and spills mixed in with buckets of sweat and tons of smiles, all in a week in the life on a NHL referee.

Day 2 Friday 9:00am, Washington DC

An Economic Summit is happening in Washington with leaders from twenty countries in the city which means lots of serious looking men and women with wires in their ears talking into their sleeves around the hotel. Our hotel is about two blocks from the White House and an easy five-block walk to the arena [Verizon Center] in downtown Washington. After a quick breakfast, I decide to forego my usual morning routine of a workout at the hotel gym to go on what I light heartedly refer to as a “wellness walk” or “walkabout”- time to reflect and energize for the games ahead. I saunter past the White House, the World War II Memorial, to the Washington Monument and finally along the path that parallels the reflecting pool where my wife and I along with two fellow NHL officials celebrated the millennium [2000] New Years Eve, listening to President Clinton and Muhammad Ali speak [I worked a game the next day in Washington -another surreal week in the life….] I pause reflectively at the muted and emotionally draining Vietnam War Memorial where I then climb quietly, somberly up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I spend some time at the Memorial gazing at the immortal words that are etched on the massive walls, timeless and classic, one of the most enduring and inspiring places I have ever visited. Sitting on the steps and overlooking the National Mall with the Capitol, Congress and Supreme Court at the opposite end from the Lincoln Memorial, I take it all in. I always enjoy my walks around Washington and as I head back to the hotel, I feel invigorated and focused on the task ahead.

Lunch with the other officials finds the conversation focused on the upcoming game. Since this is a busy three games in three nights stretch for me, I spent time during the flight mentally reviewing each challenge, familiarizing myself with the coaches, players, potential line match ups, past meetings, styles, rule s and other pertinent information that will help me prepare for the games ahead. Now that it is game day, as a group, we focus in on the immediate task at hand and discuss tonight’s game and any recent direction or rule interpretation we received from the league. We talk about the rules focus and discuss any and all hockey related topics. It is a casual but business centric discussion in which everyone contributes. Following lunch it is time for a short nap and finally, it is the best part of the day – Game Time.

Washington vs. New Jersey

As we arrive to any arena we are met by our NHL security representative, followed shortly by the locker room attendant; these hard working – salt of the earth people - make our world a little easier to focus on our game. They are absolutely essential to our success and we form close bonds with them. The Off-Ice Officials [previously misnomered as Minor Officials – the stats people], the Video Review officials and our NHL security partners are an important part of our lives and not surprisingly they all have a demonstrable passion for the game and reinforce the notion that hockey people are character people. NHL officials enjoy a special relationship with these behind the scenes people and it is always a pleasure to see friends and Washington is no different as I reconnect with those I have come to know as friends.

The Verizon Center is an exciting atmosphere, the fans are excited, the team plays an up-tempo game and the game itself is worth the price of admission as the teams blast full speed up and down the ice with the outcome in doubt until the final seconds and a last minute barrage from New Jersey falls just short and the home team wins.

After the game we conduct a post game de-briefing where we discuss particular plays or concerns that might have occurred and discuss the few issues that invariably pop up in any NHL game. Following our meeting we have a guest in the dressing room, a Secret Service agent that is assigned to the Presidential Protection detail. After a long and very interesting conversation regarding many, many aspects of his job and ours I leave amazed and impressed as to the level of commitment and integrity that goes into their job, coincidentally, he remarked about his respect to the same aspects of our job. Back to the hotel, following a quick bite to eat the crew reviews the game DVD focusing on a few penalties and other close calls and we call it a night – there always seems to be an early wake-up call waiting.

Day 3 Saturday Montreal

Packing, unpacking, packing, unpacking; the cycle goes on and after another taxi to another flight, I arrive at the hotel in Montreal by 9:00am. When travelling by air - we are required to travel by 10:00am on game day which allows the NHL to reschedule officials and give them enough time in case there are significant delays or cancellations. Unfortunately, with schedule reductions, airlines schedule most flights between 6 and 8 am or after 10am, which means that on any given day, at 6:00am there is an NHL official in an airport somewhere heading to their next game.

Downtown Montreal is eerily quiet in the early morning hours, a light freezing drizzle [must be Canada eh?] enhances the sense of isolation in the middle of the concrete jungle. Our hotel is one block from the Bell Center, home of the Canadiens. I quickly change into my sweatsuit and head to the hotel gym and have a long, soothing stretching session to address the invariable aches and pains from the night before and a cramped flight, I use this quiet time to physically prepare for the game. It’s still pretty early in the day and I have finished my physical preparation checklist, so I embark on another walkabout [my mental preparation] and find myself sitting in a huge church in downtown Montreal admiring the tranquility among the now bustling city. I gaze at the meticulous sculptures and follow sunbeams as they dance randomly through the stain-glassed windows, splashing spectacularly across the polished marble floor enhancing the grandeur of the great cathedral. I linger, appreciating the surroundings and again find myself thanking my lucky stars that I have a job I love which allows me to experience so many wonderful and interesting moments.

The travel involved with being and NHL official is a double edged sword – it is the most difficult part of the job [as I am soon to be reminded of] as well as being one of the most rewarding parts of the job – being able to visit many great cities and interact with people all across North America is a definite plus. Montreal is an interesting city that we are fortunate to visit; it is like going to Europe without crossing the ocean. You hear not only English and French on the street but Portuguese, Spanish, Russian and a variety of other languages, it may truly be North America’s most cosmopolitan city and I always enjoy my visits.

Saturday night, I am making the short walk to the rink and it is game day- I would not want to be anywhere else. The atmosphere in Montreal is electric, the Canadiens are celebrating their 100th season and once again I feel honored to be part of the great game of hockey. Tonight it is a rematch of last year’s playoffs with the Philadelphia Flyers. I was fortunate to be selected to the playoffs last year and worked a couple of games in the Montreal-Philadelphia series which was robust and exciting to say the least. As a crew we review any issues that may be lingering from last year and touch on the current win/loss records of the teams and the level of play and energy we can expect. Anxiously, I wait for my favorite part of any day – Game Time.

Montreal vs. Philadelphia

During our pre-game stretching routine one of my fellow officials re-aggravated an injury in his lower back and after getting treatment is still questionable for the game. The other three officials confer and re-familiarize ourselves of the procedures that we follow when we are short one official. We also check to see if any of the local NHL officials are home and prepare for the worst-case scenario of an injury forcing an official to miss a game. Five minutes before game time and there is still doubt about his health, four minutes to game time and in comes the injured official declaring that he will not sit this one out, takes some anti inflammatory pills and quickly finishes suiting up. Injuries are a part of our game and we all deal with small aches and pains throughout the season but there is an overriding instinct not to leave your fellow officials shorthanded – it is difficult enough to keep up with the pace of the game and keep everything in control with four of us on the ice let alone with three. We head out to the ice as the excitement in the building builds, two anthems, a ceremony honoring Canadian Olympic and Para Olympic athletes, and as we gather at center ice, we remind ourselves, “Saturday night in Montreal, Hockey Night in Canada- if you can’t get up for this – you’re in the wrong business”, and away we go….

We expected a lot of energy and excitement and are not disappointed, the Flyers seem to have more energy than the home team in the first two periods jumping out to a quick lead and then the home team stepped up their game and matched the energy and intensity of the visitors in the third period creating quite a few scoring chances and end to end play. The Flyers win the game and the local faithful are disappointed but not down and out as their beloved Habs will surely rebound. While many would argue that Toronto has the passion and fanatical fan base making it the center of the hockey universe, Montreal plays second fiddle to no one when it comes to passion, loyalty and the absolute wonderfully energetic atmosphere of a purely hockey centric city that loves it’s team. We slowly unwind in the dressing room as we watch other games being played on the TV, a typically busy Saturday night in the NHL.

As hard as it is for some to believe – NHL officials have people that love us – our family and friends usually - and tonight we are working with a local NHL official who has his wife and friends at the game. We are a tightly knit bunch and although we unfortunately rarely get together with our families, it is always nice to see old friends again. Also at the game tonight is an up and coming official from the Western Canada Junior Hockey League [WHL] that is working in Quebec [QJMHL] on an exchange program to gain experience. We meet after the game and share our experience and offer a few tips while we realizing that the same linesman that is ushering him through his first few years of trying to crack the NHL lineup is the same person that has served that purpose for many of us on the NHL staff. This is typical of the type of people involved in hockey and what makes our game special - they love the game unconditionally and want to give back to a game that has given us all so much. Additionally, the aspiring officials’ wife, who sought to figure out why her husband loved doing what he was doing, became an official herself and now has traveled internationally on three different occasions to officiate International Ice Hockey Federation [IIHF] tournaments. It was a special night and I sincerely hope that they both achieve their dreams.

Also at the game was the brother of our former colleague Stephane Provost [#72] who passed away in a traffic accident during the very dark year of the NHL lockout. We pay tribute to Stephane before every game in a ritual to remind ourselves of our commitment to each other, the game and our families. While seemingly somewhat somber to an outsider, we view it as an inspiration and serves as a reminder as to how fragile and wonderful our lives are. It is great to see Stephane’s brother again; we reacquaint ourselves and have a quick bite to eat. We also discuss hockey; always hockey, always the game, it is such an important part of so many people’s lives and we are very fortunate to be a part of it. Midnight nears so I head back up to my room to get ready for yet another early morning wake up call and yet another taxi ride, yet another flight….

Day 4 Sunday 7:45 am

I stand in front of the Air Canada agent to check in for my flight to Philadelphia, the only problem is Air Canada does not operate a flight from Montreal to Philadelphia. I quickly check my Blackberry- a minor miracle invention for us- and sheepishly apologize as I realize my flight is on a different airline, I trudge over to US Airways and quickly check in, happily I grab my bags and prepare to clear customs and then my day grinds to a halt. The line for customs is out the door and down the hall, not only that but the security line beyond customs is also out the door and down the hall. Fortunately, I have travelled out of Montreal on a Sunday morning previously and came prepared for a long wait, however, I never saw a line this long before. As someone who takes a hundred flights a year I am prepared, but some inexperienced travelers are getting antsy. I chuckle under my breath as the tension rises and finally I tentatively try to reassure those around me that this is standard operating procedure for a Sunday morning in Montréal and the flights will not leave without them but quickly realize that I am best to sit tight and mind my own business. One hour and four minutes later, I put my shoes back on after clearing the security line and head for my departure gate. Comfortably situated on a full regional jet [yeah, right] we prepare for take off and the pilot announces that a plane had an emergency landing in Philadelphia and a wheel fell off, so the airport is closed while the US National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB] is en route to investigate, meanwhile, no plane headed to Philadelphia is allowed to depart until they clear the runway. Some passengers are frantic about missing their connections in Philadelphia for destinations beyond and as we sit and sit on the runway the tension mounts. I phone the other members of the crew who are in Philadelphia having breakfast and inform them that I may not be there for our traditional pre-game lunch. While I am as frustrated as any other passenger, I realized a long time ago that there are some things I can control and some things I can’t control so my focus is on those things I can control and not worry about things that are out of my control. I begin my pre game ritual on the plane, as I sit and wait, many of my fellow passengers start to scramble, frantically phoning anyone and everyone demanding to be re-booked and assurances that they will get to their destination this morning. I debate trying to reassure them, but I mind my own business. An hour and forty-five minutes later we eventually take off and I arrive at the hotel at 1:45 pm after leaving downtown Montreal at 7:15 am. Travel is a part of life in the NHL so you always prepare for the worst and anything above that is gravy. I order room service and have a quick rest and feel that I am prepared despite the circumstances. Consistency in preparation is key and although travel issues can introduce variables into the equation – we adjust and prepare as if it is a normal day occurrence, it is all part of being a professional; the teams, fans and other stakeholders have high expectations of our performance level and correctly are not interested if an official had a long, tough travel day; they expect us to be ready at the drop of the puck, certainly no less than we expect of ourselves.

Atlanta vs. Philadelphia

Philadelphia is another great sports city with passionate, vocal fans who famously once booed Santa Claus. So what chance does an NHL referee have? I used to live in Philly so I enjoy returning to the super charged atmosphere of south Philly. Cheesesteaks, sports and family – that’s Philly. The Flyers came out strong scoring first and then taking a two-goal lead but the Atlanta firepower came on later in the game. Working three games in three nights is always challenging and this is when off-season training and experience help you muscle through the challenge and this game is no different, we rely on instincts, professionalism, work ethic, respect of the game and somehow, it all works out.

The game is a testament to the professionalism of NHL hockey players and their commitment to the game. An energized but tired Philadelphia team [three games in four nights- sound familiar?] gave it all they had for two periods and then a lightning quick Atlanta team took it to the hosts and made the third period an interesting 20 minutes by scoring early to get within one and then pressing the attack for the rest of the game. The game ends, the home team wins and the Flyers faithful file onto Broad Street, next door to where the Phillies won the World Series a few short weeks ago.

Post game, a tired but satisfied officiating crew [the other NHL officials also worked games the night before] completes its ritual post-game analysis and confer that the level of speed, agility, talent and commitment of NHL players in games like these are second to none. I am proud to be associated with the game and the people who play, officiate, operate behind the scenes and are fans of the game each and every day.

Following a short visit to a local Philadelphia restaurant accompanied by our top notch NHL security personnel [the real men of the game] we retire back to our hotel in the heart of the City of Brotherly Love, satisfied that we played our small part in the greatest game on ice.

Day 5 Monday 8:30am Philadelphia

Finally, a day without an early morning flight, however, I promised my daughter I would get her a Philadelphia Phillies World Series souvenir for her grade three teacher who is from Philadelphia – never too early to get in good with the teacher – so off I go. After a quick Cheesesteak breakfast [not the most healthy, but delicious] at the historic Reading Terminal [an absolute must for Philly visitors] I wander thru Center City and pause in reflection at the Liberty Bell, Constitution Hall and Alfreds Alley – the oldest street in North America- but finally the stores are open and I get the right gift and head to the airport for the trip to Columbus.

Arriving in Columbus, I meet one of my fellow officials at baggage claim. His wife just gave birth to their second child and despite the best efforts of the NHL, he never made it home in time for the birth, but as always, the best effort was made and that’s what counts; the NHL recognizes the importance of such seminal events and tries to ensure we are available, however, it is the accepted life of an NHL official, missing birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and other special occasions – it comes with the territory and is part of the job. It is a harsh reality of what the price of success is but we do not enter the business with illusions and we expect no sympathy as many other working families give up certain expectations for the sake of moving forward for the best of their families; the bottom line is that it is a job – albeit a great, fabulous, rewarding job, but with it comes certain responsibilities and sacrifices like any other occupation. We are all one.

Another taxi [we have become experts on cabs] to the downtown Columbus hotel is followed by a workout and a relaxing sauna and it is time for the three R’s - Relax, Remote and Room Service.

Day 6 Tuesday 9:30am

Following a light breakfast and a workout in the hotel gym we meet for lunch and begin team preparations for the game tonight. We have all been individually preparing for this game since we stepped off the ice from our last game – it is a lesson I learned early in my career: you begin mental preparations for your next game as soon as you leave the ice from your last game. We re-familiarize ourselves with the teams, players and personalities as well as any history between teams or individuals. We also have a good conversation about this week’s rules focus and with a cold fall wind at our back, head to the hotel for the most wonderful part of the day- the time honored tradition of the afternoon nap.

Edmonton vs. Columbus

The game turns out to be a lop sided affair but it does not start that way, Columbus outshoots Edmonton by a substantial margin 20-4 but finds itself down a couple of goals through the first two periods. That’s how it goes some nights, one goalie sees and stops everything and the other goalie, despite working hard can’t seem to get on track and fluky goals go in. In games like these we have to ensure that we still call the penalty standard expected of us and have a heightened awareness of any potential aggressive play for the team that falls behind looking to change the mood of the team and perhaps their fortunes on the ice. There is an NHL Officiating Manger at the game; these ex-NHL officials act as our eyes and ears and through co-operative discussions ensure we are keeping the penalty standard league wide, comment on our hustle, positioning, communication and all other aspects of the game. We are graded throughout the season on each game we work and that’s how it is determined who works in the Stanley Cup playoffs which is everyone’s ultimate goal. Each NHL officials goes into the first day of Training Camp with the goal of working Games Seven of the Stanley Cup Final and anything less than that is short of our goal. Realistic, hey, someone has to work it so why not me? Actually, because of – or despite of- take your pick, NHL officials are well-grounded and understand that in order for that honor to occur we must take care of a million other things that happen during the season. We each strive for excellence game in and game out recognizing only four of us can work that final game so we also set other individually specific goals such as making the playoff roster, working the second, third or final round etc.; it is all dependent on the individual and where we are at in our careers. After the game, we talk about a couple of plays and discuss how teams really are going hard to the net in order to create offense and the importance of allowing the goalie to play his position despite the incidental and sometimes not so incidental contact from players. A quick bite to eat and it’s off to bed – heading home tomorrow.

Day 7 Wednesday Columbus Airport 9:00 am

I listen helplessly as the gate agents tell the passengers that the scheduled flight to Dallas [where I will connect to Ontario, California and home] is delayed and most of us will not make our connections. Just another travel day, but this time I am headed home so it’s time to scramble with one thought in mind – get moving and keep moving. This is the mantra of the professional traveler. When the invariable delay occurs, do not rely solely on the information from the airline personnel as they can only know and relate so much information and for each person there are many other variables to consider; however, after traipsing across North America for the last 17 years, there is one constant – delays, and the need to keep moving toward your destination. With that in mind I arrange to travel to Chicago, connect to another flight to Orange County and then rent a car and drive to Ontario airport, pick up my own car and finally drive home. With the change in timing I arrive home eleven and a half hours after I left the hotel in Columbus, but that’s just the way it goes sometimes, no complaints – there are way too many upsides to the job to whine about travel delays – the “control what you can” theory.

Finally comfortably tucked in my own bed, drifting off to sleep, my mind wanders, how much time do I have to relax and enjoy this? When do I have to leave? … Always going forward, it is ingrained in us. Let’s see, five games in eight days with relatively [sounds crazy] little air travel – San Jose, Anaheim, Denver, back to Anaheim and then Phoenix. Six flights, a few thousand air miles, and countless thrills, chills and spills mixed in with buckets of sweat and lots of smiles; I would not want it any other way, just another week in the rewarding and unpredictable life of an NHL official.

Mike Leggo