A Referee’s Path to the NHL Can Be Winding

Making the NHL is a journey. One in which many have embarked and very few have succeeded. The fraternity of players to have skated a game in the league is small, but the number of officials is much smaller.

To make the NHL, there is no clear path for referees and linesmen. Traditionally, officials will begin by skating in their local rinks and slowly make their way up through the levels of the game. The speed of which varies on an individual basis, but often sees former minor league players use their skating abilities and experience to rise above other more seasoned refs.

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NHL officials Frederick L’Ecuyer (L) and Dan O’Rourk (R) (THW Archives)

Of course, there are no guarantees, no matter the pedigree. Take John Eminger for example, the brother of former 10-year NHL defenseman, Steve Eminger. John played four seasons of Major Junior in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and then a year for York University before trading his stick for a whistle. Eminger’s size and speed allowed him to quickly ascend to work junior games. Unfortunately, that was as far as he would go in the game. He was never able to ultimately achieve his goal of going pro.

Mitch Dunning Is a Success Story

Mitch Dunning was a little more fortunate. Like Eminger, Dunning played in the OHL before he donned the stripes. His officiating career saw him rise through the ranks at an incredibly rapid pace.

Dunning didn’t get into the referee business until 2014. In just four years, he went from skating house league to working minor hockey, Ontario Hockey Association (OHA), OHL, and American Hockey League (AHL) games. While some officials spend decades unsuccessfully trying to go pro, Dunning unbelievably got the call to referee an NHL game with under five years of experience. He made his NHL debut in March 2019.

Referees and linesmen are not immune to the same struggle that players encounter. Officials can earn a partial or full schedule contract in the AHL. Dunning is fortunate to have secured a minor league contract that allows him to work a full schedule of 80 games. While most of those games will be in the AHL, his contract allows him to get more opportunities in the NHL.

Just making it to the AHL as an official, takes passion, hard work, and dedication to their craft. For some, this is as far as their referee road will lead as there is never any promise that a minor league contract will include NHL games.

A Linesman Gets a Taste of the NHL

It is extraordinarily impressive when a new official takes to the ice for their first NHL game. Such was the case on Oct. 3, 2019, when Travis Toomey laced up for his first NHL linesman duties. He worked the meeting between the Arizona Coyotes and the Anaheim Ducks on the third of October. At age 29, Toomey managed to beat the odds and make it.

Before becoming a linesman, Toomey played five seasons in the Western Hockey League (WHL) and four seasons for the University of Alberta. As a player, he won three Canada West titles and a pair of CIS National Championships.

AHL officials Steve Kozari (L) and Kendrick Nicholson (R)

Like Dunning, Toomey skyrocketed his way up the ladder, only beginning his zebra career in 2015. He got his start at power skating camps where he was tasked to ref three-on-three hockey. Two years later he began working minor hockey league games while also officiating in the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL).

Toomey earned his spot in the AHL after attending the 2018 the NHL Officiating Combine. For the 2018-19 season, Toomey shared his time between three leagues. He lined in the AJHL, WHL, and AHL. He started the 2019-20 season on a minor league contract.

With Toomey making it to the show, it leaves only one referee on the minor league roster who hasn’t yet skated in the NHL. That’s Dan Kelly, the 30-year-old from Morrisonville, NY. Two linesmen are also still waiting for a callup, Kyle Flemington and Julien Fournier.

While there has often been enmity from fans towards the zebras patrolling the ice, it’s not hard to cheer the successes of the new crop preparing to leave their mark on the game.