Whatever sport you follow, wherever you watch it, they all have one thing in common. There are a group of people that are an essential part of any sport to keep order, and to keep things running smoothly. And whatever sport it is, one thing is for certain, and that is that everybody in the place knows their job better than them. However, whether you love them or hate them, without them there would be no sport. Of course, we are talking about the officials. Affectionately known as "Team Stripes", they are the Referees, the Umpires, and the Linesmen. They are the men and women who keep an eye on proceedings and make the decisions that we, the fans, generally love to hate. While everybody else thinks they could do a better job than them, these are the people who have the unenviable task of putting themselves in the firing line for the sole purpose of our entertainment. While many are quick to judge an official on their performance in that one game they are watching, some people do appreciate their efforts. And, while it may be true that officials in the NHL, the Premiership, or the flagship leagues of other sports are paid a very lucrative salary, the officials at the grass roots of any sport are paid very little - if at all. Often, the reward is little more than some out of pocket expenses and a "thanks for helping out". And how often is it that somebody asks an official for an autograph or a selfie? When was the last time you cheered an official? For them, it really is a case of always the Bridesmaid, never the Bride.
So, with a lull in the National Ice Hockey League off-season, I managed to catch up with 16 year veteran English Ice Hockey Association official, Phil O'Neill, and had a chat with him. I began by asking him how he got into Ice Hockey, and how old he was when he first got into the sport.
"It all started when I was 11 and I went to a friend's Birthday party at Lee Valley. I took to the ice so well and loved every minute of it and I didn't want to get off. I went skating a few more times after that and told my Mum that I wanted to do something on ice. She said that there was either Ice Hockey or Figure Skating. After watching ALL of the Mighty Ducks films (who hasn't), I opted for the Hockey way of life. Even though, to this day, I still believe she tried pushing me down the Figure Skating route."
So who was your favourite team or player back then? I asked.
"The almighty speedster - Luis Mendoza of Mighty Ducks D2" he answered. Cue our blank, vacant expression! "Oh, you mean real player? Well it would have to be everyone's favourite player back then. The Great One - Wayne Gretzky." Well, with a career like Gretzky's, we can understand that.
So then, I wondered whether Phil had ever played, or wanted to play hockey.
"Yes, although some people may say not very well. I spent most of my junior career at Lee Valley, moving over to Romford later on. There, I had Erskine Douglas who pushed me and directed me in the right direction. Back then, we didn't have U18's; it was just U16's & U19's. That was quite a big step up if you were 15 or 16 at the time, playing against grown men at the age of 19, but it did make for some exciting hockey. However, it was with Mark and Allison Taylor's help and guidance that I secured a place in Romford's ED1 team along with playing a number of games for the Romford Raiders. The good old EPL days, as Dave Totts used to say. I gave up playing in my early 20's to focus on a number of other things and, to my disappointment; I never went back to playing full time." Indeed, after hearing this, we did go and look Phil up and, according to his Elite Prospects profile, in 123 appearances for the Lee Valley and Romford outfits; he scored 29 goals and 40 assists.
So what made you want to be an official?
"While at Lee Valley as a junior, I always wanted to be on the ice. I reached out and Eddie Joseph suggested I try being an official. At the age of only 14, I was the youngest official in the EIHA programme. I think the only reason I kept going as an official was because of those around me. My Mum, for driving me to all the rinks, Ashraff for pushing me and having faith in me and, most importantly, Dave and Joy Totts (Joy Johnston - she will always be a Totts to me!). I did games during the week and every weekend when I wasn't playing. They have both shown me everything I know when it comes to being an official. And, to this day, Joy still does. Without them, I would have quit within a week of doing the job."
How long have you been an official for?
"Ooooh that's a tough one. As I mentioned earlier, I started at the age of 14, but along the road I hit some bumps and packed the gear away for a few years. If you don't count the odd break, it has been about 16 years. Most of them years have been as a linesman. The banter you have on the line with players is a million times better than as a Referee, this is mainly why I am still on the line now and not wearing the armbands."
What would you say are the best and the worst games you have officiated in?
"The worst? Well, I have seen my fair share of bad games both here in the UK and abroad as an official. However, three games stand out for me the most. It was Junior Conference Weekend", Phil reminisces, "I think I was 19 at the time. South East V Scotland - South East had to win by a number of goals to reach the final. The game was packed full of goals, penalties and penalty shots. Oh, and let us not forget the mass brawl at the end. I have never had so much security around me escorting myself and my linesmen from the ice." He continues: "Second would be Streatham V London in NIHL1, there was a mass brawl in the crowd as a London player fought with a spectator. The game was eventually abandoned - a first for me. Then there was the game at Romford. I'm not sure who the opposition was but I took a puck straight to the mouth." But it's not all doom and gloom in the world of officialdom, as Phil recounts: "My best game was my first ever game in the EPL. Romford Raiders V Isle Of Wight. Walking out onto the ice with Dave Totts and Dave Cloutman. They were brilliant towards me, and the support was amazing from both. It still didn't help my nerves and me shaking like a leaf to a massively packed out Romford rink. I did the Elite league and a few IIHF games back in the day, but your first ever big boy game will always stick with you for life - that's for sure."
As many fans only see the officials in Ice Hockey skate out onto the ice, do their job, and skate back off again, and for fans that are new to the sport, I asked Phil what goes on behind the scenes for the officials on game night.
"More than most people would think. Firstly, some of us officials travel many miles so that's the first thing you have to gear yourself up for. It's brilliant if you're travelling together as there's nothing like a bit of ref banter. Some of us will talk to the fans before the game, catch up on the gossip, talk about other games, while others may just run straight for the dressing room. Just like the players, we also have to warm up so we don't do damage to our amazing athletic bodies (ha-ha). But thanks to modern technology, we too pump out the tunes from our dressing room. If you're (Stephen) Matthews, you have to check Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, THF, and every other social media platform before you walk out. We all have a little chat about what to expect in the game, how to prevent things, what we need to work on, covering methods. We ask each other to watch out for our weaknesses and then we all report back at the end of the game. This helps us to improve ourselves instead of being stuck in the same old routine."
Last season, you were pioneering the use of helmet cameras for training. How do you think that was received by players, teams, fans, and the league?
"What can I say? Social media speaks for itself. The first clip had over eleven thousand views in the first day, and the feedback from fans was welcoming and positive. It even featured on one of the sports channels over in the US, and was talked about for weeks. The players and teams I encountered all appeared to love it and believe it was a step in the right direction for the officials, the games and for the safety of all those on the ice. My aim was to cover two areas, to allow officials to watch the video back, learn, and progress from it. And discipline - to ensure the right information was being fed back to the EIHA Discipline team. The video and audio footage doesn't lie, to which the players knew from the start. All the officials, players, coaches, and fans noticed a huge improvement in the game. Not to mention, for us officials, the abuse went from 100% per game to 0%. We are working with the EIHA to ensure this trial can be rolled our further in future seasons. It is important that as the National Governing Body have the opportunity to put in place appropriate policies around the use of the cameras so there is consistently in what they provide across certain leagues and no teams are left disadvantaged or unfairly treated by their use. With so many changes in the governance of our sport lately this is probably lower down their priority list than I would like it to be but I respect the need for it to be rolled out professionally and in the correct way for the sport."
Well, whatever the league decide, we here at Ice Cold Photography were most impressed by the footage that Phil managed to capture with his RefCam, some of which can be seen by clicking HERE. If it makes the game better by improving training and education, then it can only be a good thing so let's hope it's not too long before the EIHA officially sanctions its use.
A controversial issue that has arisen among fans over the years, and which has been debated to death on social media is the use of the 2-Man system, whereby instead of having one Referee and two Linesmen, there are just two officials on the ice who have equal powers to call infringements and penalties. One of the main bones of contention for the fans has been that many things are missed by not having that third pair of eyes on the ice. I asked Phil for his thoughts on the 2-Man system.
"The 2-Man system, it does the job in my eyes. As the power is given to both officials, one may see something the other hasn't therefore I believe there are more calls as less things are missed. In saying that, the 2-Man system is somewhat challenging when calling Offside and these tend to be the calls that are missed. I personally loved it when we had the 4-man system and it's a brilliant way of putting a training Referee with a more experienced Referee to learn from.
On a 3-man system, if you're wearing the armbands, you are effectively on your own. But, some old school officials only like doing the 3-man system instead of the 4-man, it really depends on who you are speaking to and their experience. I definitely agree that all senior hockey should be at least a 3-man system. Maybe with Joy at the helm, the 4-man may make a comeback."
I am not ashamed to admit that I'm not a fan of the 2-man system - partly because I do think more gets missed and partly because I'm a bit of a traditionalist at heart. And hockey has traditionally had three officials.
So, with all these super knowledgeable potential Referees hiding behind the Plexi, I asked Phil what advice or encouragement he could give to someone who fancies having a go at putting all that theory into practice and actually become an official.
"Do it! As I mentioned earlier, Joy has put together an awesome training programme for new officials. Things are moving forward in a direction, which can only benefit the sport. The official's family is an awesome family to be a part of, where nothing is taken too seriously, and we all have a laugh on and off the ice. One motto, which has been around long before me, is that if you fall over during the game, you buy the beers after the game for your team. I have bought a lot of beer. I will say this though: you have to love what you do and the sport to really be an official. Nobody in hockey does it for the money as that more or less just covers the cost of the kit and travelling, so we do it for the love of the sport. But the league is always looking for officials, so if you're up for the challenge then lace up a pair of skates, grab a jersey and give it a go." (At the tender age of 43, I think that boat may have long since sailed for me, Phil! - Ed)
If you could officiate in any game, what would it be?
"I'd love to step out on an NHL game. Team wise, I have no preferences. Just knowing you had officiated at the top level is enough and would be somewhat of an honour. Mind you, those guys do get paid the big bucks!"
What are the best and worst things about being an official?
"For me, the worst thing is getting hit by that damn puck! We officials don't wear as much padding as the guys playing but, for some unknown reason, the puck always seems to hit us. And usually where there is zero padding. And I'm not going to lie either - it hurts. A lot. The best parts are doing the games that you walk away from alive, and that you have just gone out and enjoyed it. Banter with your team, the players and the fans helps and makes it what it is."
As well as being an official, Phil is also a well-known and rather successful coach of the Chelmsford Junior teams. I wondered if he had any plans to take that further and coach senior hockey.
"I would but…I'm no Sean Easton. I have worked with Sean for a few years now and the man is a walking drill book. He just makes drills up out of nothing and it works. Me, on the other hand, I need to plan my drills.
Coaching is like being an official - this isn't the NHL and you only get paid your expenses so there really does have to be a love and a passion for the game. Plus, if I was to coach senior hockey, I wouldn't be able to officiate at senior level as the seniors play almost every weekend. Aside from that, I think my partner would kill me! She hardly sees me as it is. At least with officiating you can take a weekend off when you want."
Alongside holding down a full time job, being an official, coaching, and having a young family, do you find any time for other interests?
"You'd think not but there are a few. I'm at the club most Friday and Saturday nights spinning the mp3s (DJs joke). I was also recently learning to fly and, while I wish to move forward with this, it is damn expensive. I think it'd certainly help getting to all the rinks though. I must say I am extremely lucky. My partner is very supportive and she does an amazing job of keeping the kids away while I try to sleep between all these jobs and interests. So real credit goes to her because without her I wouldn't be able to do most of the things I do on and off the ice." Looks like Mrs O'Neill may be in for a bumper haul of presents this Christmas then. Being a bit of a self-confessed aeroplane anorak, I don't mind admitting I'm just a little teeny-weeny bit jealous of the flying lessons. That said, I'm not exactly sure where Phil could park his plane on Streatham High Road on game night. Something tells me he'd have to spend a lot more than a fiver in Tesco to get the cheap parking.
Finally, I noted that Phil does a bit of DJing on the side, so I asked him how he got into that.
"I was working at the club when I was 18 and thought it was the DJs that get all the girls. But it turned out it was no Kevin And Perry Go Large, DJs really don't. It actually came about that it looked interesting and I challenged myself to learn it. So every shift I did at the club, any spare minutes I got I went up to the DJ box and watched and learned. Then, one day, the DJ didn't turn up and I was told I was doing it. Ever since then I've been doing it every Friday and Saturday night. People think it's just a case of pushing play and stop but there is much more to it than that."
Now that you've had an insight into the life and the trials and tribulations of an EIHA official, the next time one of them makes a call on the ice that you don't agree with, just remember that they're human too.
So, rather than hurling abuse at them, or questioning their eyesight, go and have a chat with them. Ask them for that selfie; thank them for coming down to the rink to make sure there's a game. Maybe even buy them a drink. Whatever you do, treat them as a person and just see how much the appreciate it. As Phil said, they all do it for the love of the game.
If you’d like to check out Phil’s DJ skills, you can find him spinning his tunes most weekends at O’Neills (no relation apparently) at Leytonstone.
As Phil mentioned, the EIHA are always looking for new officials. So if you're brave enough to venture onto the other side of the Plexiglas and have a go, you can go onto the league's website and register HERE.
Finally, I'd just like to say a massive thank you to Phil for taking the time to speak to me and answer my questions.
All photos are subject to copyright and are the property of the copyright owner and, as such, may not be used or copied in any way without the copyright owner's permission.