Dan Nickel helps prepare youth for the demanding job of hockey refereeing.
The 30 year veteran of refereeing officiated for military hockey teams across Canada, from New Brunswick to Alberta and many places between.
“I enjoy it, the camaraderie is great, and I don’t play hockey anymore, so it keeps me involved with the game,” Nickel says.
Nickel came to Vanderhoof two years ago and was thrust almost instantly into this region’s hockey world, becoming head referee for the local minor hockey association.
Nickel said he knew it was time for him to pass on his skills to the young and aspiring officials.
“When I was younger the older refs helped develop me,” Nickel reflects, “and now I think it was time for me to give back.”
Nickel keeps busy with the refs-in-training, spending many hours watching them work the games, then evaluating their skills and giving feedback.
“I spend about 26 hours on a weekend at the rink … watching them and then I talk to the refs about what they did well, and what they could have done better,” Nickel explains.
The referee chief also puts on seminars and training sessions throughout the year, to build skills and keep the training current.
He said refereeing can be a tough racket, so in addition to the after-game evaluations, he likes to lend support to the young officials to prepare them for the more unpleasant parts of the game.
“I know the 12 to 14-year-olds like to have me there because I can get their backs,” the chief ref said.
That’s because the wilder hockey fans can get too opinionated and loud, he explained.
“I can talk the refs through the struggles that they may have,” Nickel notes, hoping that way, he can keep more referees coming back.
Young officials require on-going support mainly because most of what they learn comes from doing. They receive training at a Hockey Canada clinic in the fall, at the beginning of the hockey season, and they also write a test, Nickel says.
“Then the next thing you know, they have a referee sweater and they’re on the ice,” he observes, “they’re also in charge of a game and the adult coaches that are on the bench, and for a twelve-year-old that can be quite stressful.”
That very delicate balance of power, he notes is why it’s important to have a chief referee around to offer advice and to help young refs roll with the punches.
“I help them get over the hurdles of being scared out there, and help them gain some confidence,” Nickel notes.
He says it takes many seasons for referees to pick up skills and grow a thicker skin to deflect the sometimes cruel and inappropriate things hurled at them by fans and coaches.
He said it was so bad a few weeks ago he skated over to the bleachers and reprimanded spectators for taking out their frustrations on the official.
“I told them to put themselves in that young ref’s shoes,” Nickel says, “think of how he must feel to hear them yelling like that.”
He noted after that event, the public thanked him for drawing a line, as it’s hard for just anyone to tell people to zip it,even when you’re right.
Nickel says the dangers of refereeing aren’t just in breaking up fights or dodging fan debris; sharing how he got a crooked finger.
“I fell during a game and a player skated over my hand, severing some tendons,” he says.
“I show the younger refs how to fall with their hands closed so that it doesn’t happen to them,” Nickel says, noting as officials don’t wear gloves.
He adds humourously, that when he’d dole out the family chores, pointing to who was being matched with a task, his kids asked him “who are you pointing at?” because his index finger is bent.
He believes the refereeing in Vanderhoof is coming into its own, with lots of very good officials turning up to referee the games.
“We have a great group of refs eager and willing … a great group of school kids coming up,” he says.
He is also quick to give credit to some local ref supporters.
“Dy deVos helps out a lot and treats the refs really well,” Nickel notes, “she supplies them with towels and snacks, and makes everybody feel special.”
Nickel doles out special praise to Rio Tinto Alcan for pitching big time, paying for referee training, supplies and ice time.
“(Rio Tinto Alcan) gave us $1,800,” Nickel gushes, “I can’t stress enough how important that was.”
He added the association was also aided by the district’s grant writer, Janice Baker, who wrote applications on their behalf.
Nickel foresees he will be involved in hockey for a long time,
“Even after I can’t keep up with the eight-year-olds anymore,” he says, “I’ll still find a way to be there.”