The National Hockey League is continually looking for ways to improve its on-ice product and that doesn’t necessarily mean simply developing the players or changing the rules.
From Aug. 15 to 17, the first NHL Exposure Combine was hosted in Buffalo, N.Y., aimed at recruiting new individuals to consider a career in officiating.
“The idea behind the event was to, as it states, expose ex-players that are maybe at the end of their playing career and undecided about their future, to the world of officiating,” said Al Kimmel, NHL officiating manager.
According to Kimmel, NHL director of officiating Stephen Walkom presented the idea to league officials during the fall of 2013. From there, the officiating department went to work communicating the combine to various universities in both Canada and the United States in addition to some junior teams in order to test the waters and determine what kind of interest might exist.
It was no coincidence that Walkom, Kimmel and the NHL officiating department targeted ex-players and college athletes.
“We based it on the success of our current [officiating] staff,” Kimmel said. “Most of the members, be it referees or linesmen, have grown up in the game playing. As a player, [they] understand the game, know what’s involved from the physical fitness aspect. Their skating skills, the athleticism they bring to the table seems to be a great quality.”
According to Kimmel, the response was overwhelming, with nearly 200 applicants submitting to attend the camp. The NHL invited 58 of those applicants to Buffalo, including Cranbrook’s Kevin Ross.
Recently graduated from Princeton University, the 24-year-old played three seasons with the Tigers, Princeton’s men’s hockey team. He was cut short of a fourth season after suffering a career-ending concussion midway through his junior season.
“I love the game, obviously,” Ross said over the phone from San Francisco, where he now resides. “[Officiating] is a good way to both give back to the game and also maybe keep myself involved and make a career out of it.”
Ross grew up in Cranbrook and began his junior hockey career at the onset of the 2005-06 season in Kimberley with the KIJHL’s Dynamiters . He suited up for 94 games over two seasons with the Nitros before graduating to the BCHL’s Alberni Valley Bulldogs in 2007-08. After three successful seasons in the BCHL that included 90 points in 168 games, Ross accepted an athletic scholarship to Princeton University.
Since graduating from Princeton’s environmental engineering program this year, Ross is adjusting to life in sunny California as he embarks on a new chapter with ENVIRON, a global environmental consulting company. Ross was hired as an environmental consultant specializing in air quality and emissions. With that in mind, there’s no immediate future in officiating for the Cranbrook native as he settles into post-graduate life, a new career, and a city where the existence of hockey is relatively limited.
“Any of the participants that came to the camp, if they did have interest in officiating and wanted to pursue it, we’re currently following up with leagues at different levels to try and place these participants,” Kimmel said. “We want them to keep interested in pursuing [officiating] skills no matter what level they’re at.
“There was a lot of overwhelming positivity in responses from the participants and I think [the combine] was a great value.”
While Ross isn’t taking that path right now, hockey holds a special place in his heart. If circumstance change, there’s a very real chance the former Kimberley Dynamiter will return to the ice adorned in stripes.
“I don’t think I’m a big-city guy at heart,” Ross said. “I could see myself, somewhere down the line, moving back to Cranbrook or somewhere like Cranbrook. I love the mountains.”
Though there is no way to immediately measure the success of the camp, the NHL officiating department will continue to track participants from the NHL Exposure Combine.
So while most fans focus on the latest change to the rules or jaw-dropping player fitness statistics from the NHL Scouting Combine, Al Kimmel and the rest of the NHL officiating department go about business behind the scenes, quietly searching for ways to improve the game by improving the men responsible for ensuring the rules are abided by on the ice.
Time will tell whether or not this latest trial was a success.