A Guide to Proper Fitness for Hockey Officials

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A Guide to Proper Fitness for Hockey Officials

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If you have the goal of making it to the NHL, you need to make fitness a top priority.

The reality is that the game has changed. If you watch the NHL back in the 1980’s and compare that to today, there are some stark differences. For officials, the main point of interest is the increased emphasis on obstruction calls like hooking or interference, which were widely used to slow opponents down back then.

Today, however, as we all know, the NHL has severely clamped down on these types of infractions, and now we see any sort of tug with the stick being called as a hooking. The speed of the game has increased dramatically as a result. Because of that speed increase, you can no longer officiate the game at the highest levels without being a terrific skater.

If you want some insider information – the reality is that the NHL officiating program is heavily recruiting former players because of their ability to skate well and keep up with the pace of the game.

As I learnt from attending an NHL exposure combine a few years ago in Buffalo, players are being sought after because they can skate, communicate with the players, and have a great feel for the game. The NHL’s new philosophy for recruiting officials certainly has its critics, as many long-time officials have suggested that it takes years of experience, of grinding through minor hockey, and chippy junior hockey games to learn how to officiate properly. You need to go through some line brawls, where the proverbial shit hits the fan or teams are at each other throats all night, to gain the experience that will serve you at the highest levels of play.

While this remains a debate in the upper boardrooms of the professional officiating circuit, there is no escaping the fact that you need to be in great shape and a top skater to be able to make it at these levels. Make no mistake about it, the current NHL officials are spending just as much time training and getting on the ice in the off-season as the players. When I went to the NHL exposure combine in Buffalo, we got to meet some of these current referees and linesmen, and every single one of them was quite noticeably in unbelievable shape. One referee, who will not be named, I could have sworn was a bodybuilder.

The reasons for being in shape might seem clear, as you would want your officials to be able to keep up with the pace of play, however there are more intricacies to it than that. Sightlines are critical to a official’s job on the ice. Think of when a player lifts his opponents stick close to the gloves – if you have a bad angle you’d be guessing whether it was a legal stick lift or a slash/hook. Think of a big hit at center ice where you think a player contacted an opponent’s head with his shoulder, but you were too far behind the play to know for sure. A good example is when sometimes the puck is loose in the crease and the referee blows their whistle prematurely because they thought it was covered. Use that good athleticism to get a better sightline. Sometimes all it takes is one more stride.

Even for linesman, it is important. We will talk about this in more detail in a later chapter but suffice to say that even for linesman a split second or two can make an enormous difference. The best example of how great skating helps linesman do their duties is in preventing penalties from scrums, where there might be two players pushing or shoving, and the linesmen break it up before it escalates further. If the linesman were slow getting to the scrum, who knows, one player might have sent a punch to the opponent’s head, or a full-fledged fight might have broken out. By preventing that escalation, you keep the game in control, and both teams playing even strength, ensuring the officials are doing their best not to impact the outcome of the game for something preventable. Yes, believe it or not, penalty prevention is a goal of an official.

At the NHL and professional levels, it is without question that the officials are tremendous athletes, however at the lower levels fitness for officials has always been an issue. Especially when you look at the fact that players are getting older while the officials working now are getting older, there is a gap occurring. We need to actively promote young officials who take their fitness levels seriously.

How can you improve your physical fitness and skating? Well firstly, you need to be implementing a workout and training regiment in your schedule. Of course, most officials do not work professionally, and will need to balance officiating with their school, work, and family schedules. However, even getting to the gym 2 or 3 times a week has huge benefits.

Below you will find an example workout, courtesy of athletic trainer Kyle Kostynski (IG: kylekostynski):

Power / Strength Training:

Barbell Back Squat
3-5 sets of 3-5 reps
*add in a slow 3-second decent with a fast-powerful ascent.

Dumbbell Split Squats
3-4 sets of 8-10 reps per leg

Weighted Side Lunge
3-4 sets of 8-10 reps / leg

Box Jumps
3 – 5 sets of 10 – 15 reps
*add in a slow 3-second decent with a fast-powerful ascent.

Single Arm Dumbbell Row
3-4 sets of 8-10 reps / arm

Box Dips
3 – 5 sets of 10 – 15 reps

Core Training:

Banded Palloff Press (kneeling)
3-5 sets of 15 reps

Banded Rotations (kneeling)
3-5 sets of 15 reps

Russian Twists
3 secs of 30seconds

Hollow Body Hold
3x 30seconds



Sampson Stretch 1min/leg

Seated Forward fold 2min

Pigeon stretch 2min/side

Lacrosse ball under the sole of the foot 1min/side

Foam roll quads, lats, hamstrings, and calfs


In terms of skating, it is important to distinguish between the officiating season and the off-season. During the season, we can be kept busy with games that we don’t have the time to get on the ice to work solely on our skating.

During the season I would say that first and foremost, you should be putting your full effort into every game, which at the same time will push your skating limits. Secondly, try to join a men’s league team, or an intramural team that plays at least once a week. Playing works different edges then being an official, and will improve your footwork, since as a player your time on the ice is focused into quicker, and more demanding shifts that improve foot speed and stamina, as opposed to the one long shift that is officiating a game. It will also keep your hockey sense sharper and your understanding of the game through a player’s point of view.

The off-season is really the critical time for me. Because you are not kept busy by working several games each week, during your off-season you can focus solely on improving your skating ability. You should find a local skating instructor that works with hockey players. Typically most hockey cities and towns will have several qualified instructors and programs available.

This is critical, as a proper instructor will improve your balance, edgework, footspeed, and balance among other things. The off-season is where you make your big improvements, whereas the season is mostly about maintenance.

Most NHL officials will work with some type of on-ice instructor during the off-season, and in fact, in some of the larger cities, officials will hire an instructor, and train as a group on a regular basis. While being a great skater won’t automatically get you into the NHL, not being a weak skater will certainly eliminate you. Don’t worry though, even if you don’t consider yourself a great skater now, working with the right skating instructor, I absolutely guarantee you will see a huge improvement, and gain a comfort on your skates that you never thought possible.

For example, while I still don’t consider myself a terrific skater, I have grown leaps and bounds by working with Lloyd Watling, possibly the best skating instructor in Atlantic Canada, whose BAM (Balance Agility Mobility) programs have become well-known for their ability to improve skating abilities for hockey players in the area. Working with Lloyd each summer in one his high intensity programs has been a privilege each year.

Another component to consider for improving your skating is to join an officiating camp in the summer. There are high level officiating camps across North America that are often run by former NHL officials. I had the privilege of attending the Don Koharski officiating camp for several years and gained a better appreciation for how to skate as a referee. Switching from playing to becoming an official, I remember Don telling me in my first season to skate higher, not with the same low stance that I was used to when I was a player. This has been something I have worked-on in my officiating since then.

It is very important to take away that skating is very important. If you are still young, don’t quit playing early – use it as an asset. Even finishing a career in playing junior B can be enough to carry your name through the ranks. For example, I was able to reach the NHL exposure combine in Buffalo because of that one year of junior B I played in the small town of Winchester, Ontario.

If you are done playing, be sure to follow the steps I’ve outlined above to maintain your skating and to improve.