It was a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience for OMHA referee Curtis Smith.
It was a Thursday night in December and just like the Toronto Maple Leafs players a few doors down, Smith was lacing up his skates ready to hit the Air Canada Centre ice for warmups.
Smith was taking part in the annual Hockey Canada night, where one minor hockey referee is chosen to join the official game crew during the pregame skate before puck drop. So there Smith was, skating on the ice with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, a moment he says he will remember forever.
Growing up in Whitby, Smith played both recreational and representative hockey until his Minor Midget year. He started reffing when he was 14 years old at the encouragement of his brother and loves being able to still be a part of the game. His work was noticed by his area supervisors and by Dave Wedlake, Chair of the OMHA’s Referees Program and was selected for the opportunity.
“This young man demonstrates a strong work ethic while on the ice. More importantly, an excellent off ice attitude, along with a great personality,” said Wedlake. “He is a big solid kid, strong skater, and is very eager to learn. He has the determination and the desire to want to be the best official he can be. It’s tough to find those qualities in young officials today. He represents what the OMHA and Hockey Canada Officials Program should be about.”
Smith’s night began with a tour of the arena and learning about the Leafs organization. He then met the NHL officials he would be skating with, listening to their stories and paths to becoming stand-out referees. From there, the group hit the ice for the skate and national anthems.
The night helped reinforce to Smith why he does what he does.
“Being a referee is not short term for me. I plan to be a referee as long as I can still enjoy it,” said Smith. “It also allows me to still be part of the game of hockey when I am an older age. My goal in refereeing is to reach my full potential in my referee career and stick with it for a long time.”
The job provides the 17-year-old with lots of experience in high pressure situations and teaches him very good people skills dealing with coaches, parents and players of all ages. He recommends the job to whoever is considering it.
“I would say to someone thinking about becoming a ref is that this job will help you build your character and confidence in yourself and your abilities.”
While unfortunately there can sometimes be negative comments directed at him from those on and off the ice during a game, Smith simply doesn’t pay attention to them.
“That helps calm the situation, especially with parents and players. The last thing you want is a bigger conflict then there needs to be. The one thing I would tell them about my job is that the game can be unpredictable and sometimes you can't see it all.”
The Leafs ended up losing the game in the shootout to the visiting Arizona Coyotes but everything that happened before puck drop is what will stick out for Smith. He wishes that this experience continues on every year so others can get involved the same way he did.
“I hope they continue to do this for young officials because it was very inspiring to me. I got to see what the job is all about and I loved every minute of it.”