Earning their stripes: How NHL refs stay in shape

Referees must remain in phenomenal physical shape to keep up with -- and avoid getting crushed by -- today's NHL players. AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

CHICAGO -- NHL referee Dan O'Rourke, like most frequent fliers, is a meticulous packer. For every work trip, his suitcase weighs exactly 52 pounds. Should an airport attendee measure it at, say, 51 pounds, O'Rourke knows he must have left something at home. And he never leaves for a trip without his black-and-white striped uniform -- which he is responsible for transporting (and laundering) himself between cities -- his skates, gym clothes, toiletries and a high-powered blender. That's right, a blender. After burning 1,000 calories in a regulation game, how else is he supposed to replenish without a protein shake?

"Some teams have gotten better over the years in how they treat us," says O'Rourke, an 18-year NHL vet. "Sometimes there's a hot meal waiting for us after the game, with a protein and vegetables. But other arenas ..."

Let's just say that O'Rourke must be resourceful. Welcome to the secluded and highly regimented lifestyle of NHL officials, who call themselves the league's 32nd team. The parallels between the 68 men in stripes who regulate the game and an actual NHL team are hard to ignore.

There's a demanding coach (fitness guru Dave Smith, aka "Smitty") who keeps them in line and a manager (head of officiating Stephen Walkom) who oversees the roster. There are, unfortunately, season-ending injuries, which means AHL call-ups. The season is defined by exhausting travel -- most refs typically work three games a week, meaning they're on the road 19-21 days a month -- and their ultimate goal is to skate in the Stanley Cup playoffs. More than anything else, there's a need to keep up with the best.

"No question, the pace of the game has changed to become much faster," says Vaughan Rody, who was honored last month for officiating his 1,000th NHL game. "And we need to keep up, too."

Over the past few years, this has led to a total obsession with fitness.

It's mid-December in Chicago, and the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks are on the ice for warm-ups. In the bowels of the United Center, the only sound is muffled electronic dance music echoing up from the ice. This is where the four officials for the night's game are conducting their own warm-ups.

O'Rourke wraps an exercise band around a nearby forklift so he can use it to stretch (remember, he's resourceful). He is reminded that, at this very arena five years ago, he suffered his goriest injury. Then-New Jersey Devils winger Dainius Zubrus fired a slap shot to dump the puck into Chicago's zone. O'Rourke was standing on the Zamboni end by the wall and, as he notes, not where he was supposed to be. The puck bounced off the glass, hit the stanchion and ricocheted right into O'Rourke's teeth. Fifty stitches and three implants later, he returned to the ice.

Before becoming an official, O'Rourke spent time in the ECHL, suiting up for the Erie Panthers and Louisiana IceGators, where he picked up penalties instead of calling them. O'Rourke also endured three shoulder surgeries during his playing days, and his officiating injuries include "a handful of knee stuff," including MCL sprains, meniscus issues and a bone taken out of his knee.

Steve Kozari is pedaling on a stationary bike. Now in his 10th NHL season, Kozari has been spared from major injury, although he has "a lot of arthritis in certain areas." To compensate, he undertakes a serious pregame stretching routine, and also does yoga with his wife twice a week, which he says also helps with his balance.

Kory Nagy, 28, is the youngest of all the officials. A fifth-round draft pick of the Devils in 2008, he played 306 games of pro hockey -- including 117 in the AHL -- before switching to officiating in 2014. He made his NHL debut in 2016.

"After I was done playing, I was burnt out from all the strenuous lifting. I couldn't maintain that forever," says Nagy, who has slimmed from his playing weight of 205-210 pounds to 193.

"It was weird at first," Nagy says, about taking the NHL ice with guys he came up with. "But I love what I do now."

And then there's Rody, whose body has been ravaged by his job, though you could never tell by his cheery disposition -- or his pregame routine. Rody's feet are propped on a railing and he extends in a plank position, his face nearly grazing the floor. Rody has had both legs broken by slap shots (one from longtime NHL defenseman Andrew Ference). He also tore a pectoral muscle while breaking up a fight. "They cut the jersey off between periods," Rody says, matter-of-factly. "And the doctors said, 'Oh my god, we have to schedule you for surgery right away. Flew back to [my home in] Seattle, had surgery the next day. I was out for eight months after that."

Rody also had spinal fusion surgery two-and-a-half years ago, which sidelined him for more than a year.

It's amazing that they've all been able to bounce back from these injuries, but it makes more sense when you consider how they train.

"They're not professional athletes, but we're treating them like athletes," Walkom says. "To be able to step on the ice with the best hockey players on the world you would need to be conditioned accordingly."

Each year, officials convene for their own training camp. When Walkom officiated in the 1980s, workouts weren't so vigorous. Everyone was required to run two miles.

"You just needed to complete it," Walkom says. "Like it was a high school gym test."

Officials used to come to training camp to get in shape.

"I'd let myself go, then try to lose 15 pounds at the end of summer," O'Rourke says. "Now guys are more into a lifestyle of fitness and health versus crash dieting and whipping into shape right before the season."

They have Smith to thank for that. Smith is a former trainer for the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers who joined the league in the 1990s to work with officials. He developed a program that involved testing (see sidebar below). Unlike players who covet power and lower-body girth, refs prefer to be leaner. It's easier on the joints, which can help a ref continue to work into his 50s.

"Smitty has probably prolonged a lot of guy's careers," Rody says. "In this business, we're not making millions of dollars like these players are. We're making $300,000 a year. That's a lot of money for us. So if we buy in, get in shape, maybe it buys us an extra two or three years. It's better for everybody."

On-ice drills include getting out of the way after a puck is dropped for faceoff. Refs are also required to scrimmage against each other, the thinking being: If you can't play a full game of hockey, you probably shouldn't be on the ice.

Smith has a reputation fore being a hard-ass. A few years ago, he eliminated mayonnaise from the officials' training-camp menu, which caused a small revolt because of dry sandwiches. He monitors the refs closely throughout the season.

"If a guy is slipping, Smitty goes and lives with them for a week," Walkom says.

In what sounds like a boot camp reality show, Smith will embed at a referee's home, fully examining his training regimen and his fridge.

"Well, usually their fridge looks great," Smith says. "It's when they're on the road -- that's when it's most difficult to make good choices."

He'll also check in when officials cycle through Buffalo, where he's based. Though Rody has never been subject to extra Smitty time, he knows, "If you're told you need to go to Buffalo, and he's scheduling for you to go for a skate in the morning, obviously you're not doing what's expected of you."

Adds O'Rourke: "He's got our best interests in mind. But I'm sure it's not easy to receive. Nobody wants to hear, 'Hey, chubby.'"

Smith shares the rationale for his tough-love stance: "If your fitness level is greater than it needs to be, then you have no problem getting into the right positions and having the right sightlines," he says. "And if you don't have to worry about getting into those right spots, then you just need to focus on your judgement and your communication. And your job becomes much easier for you."

Though they work with a different crew every game, the officials treat each other like a team. Usually they get lunch together before a game. In Chicago, that means salads.

"Our lunches have changed completely," O'Rourke admits. "It used to be that at 12:30 you'd have the biggest plate of pasta and chicken and then go nap, work the game, and then eat chicken wings and beer afterward."

Now, O'Rourke makes his protein shakes after the game -- no need for a huge meal, just replenishment. In-season workouts vary from official to official.

Kozari supplements his yoga with cardio machines like the elliptical or bike (running is too hard on his joints). Nagy and Rody are both avid cyclists -- they mountain bike while at home, and Nagy even rented bikes when working games in Arizona and Las Vegas.

O'Rourke, meanwhile, is a CrossFit junkie. which works out well, because he can find gyms all over the country. He typically does about five CrossFit workouts a week, which sometimes means squeezing in a CrossFit workout in the morning and working a game at night.

"My workout is the hardest part of my day," O'Rourke says. "Then when it comes to working a hockey game, because I put so much time on the other side of it, the physical demands aren't that bad. Mentally, I can stay in the game much longer."

Says Rody: "There are 68 guys, and we all have our own way to work out, but as we're committed, and working hard, we're going to do the best job we can every night."

Being an NHL referee is inherently thankless. If you officiate a perfect game, that means nobody in the arena is talking about you. We tend to only notice refs when we think they messed up. Wes McCauley has become the rare exception to this, becoming a viral sensation for his dramatic recitings of video reviews.

More often, a stigma haunts refs; they've been conditioned by abuse and scapegoating since juniors. It's telling that one of the most retold incidents involving referees was when then-Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld, angry about officiating in a 1988 playoff game, berated referee Don Koharski, calling him a "fat pig" and telling him to "have another doughnut."

There are two things refs want the average fan to know. One is that they're passionate about hockey. A lot of refs, such as Rody, run power-skating camps over the summer. Many, such as O'Rourke, took up officiating as a way to stay in the game when their playing careers were exhausted. (Though O'Rourke was invited to Edmonton Oilers training camp in 1993, he finished playing in Louisiana in the East Coast League in 1997-98; his first son was born that summer and he wanted stability for his family).

"I hate hearing, 'You guys aren't accountable, you don't care about the game,'" O'Rourke says. "If you don't care about hockey, you're not going to be an official; what a stupid job to take if you don't love the game. You're not going to do this job, when everywhere you go you get kicked in the teeth."

And the other thing fans should know? These days, most NHL refs are terrified of reaching for sugary fried dough -- especially if their coach is watching.