This is the first in a content series that focuses on the revamped OHA Officiating Program
by Dan Carle
Leave it to a guy from the show to spearhead showing the way.
Craig Spada, once an NHL referee and now vice-president of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League, is on a recruitment drive to bridge ex-officials in referee-rich Ontario with the next generation to keep the game within the lines and fresh minds on the straight and narrow.
“I have had a lot of highlights in the game,” said Spada, who logged 247 NHL games before getting off the road and back home to Greater Fort Erie in 2007 at age 36.
“I retired at an early age compared to the others. I was a little bit of a homebody to be honest with you. The travel was not something I loved. It kind of beat me up, and being away was hard on me.
“Now I kind of enjoy the teaching part of it – trying along with others to build a program that will work in the OHA.”
There are just under 500 officials in the entire Ontario Hockey Association. Attracting and bringing along aspiring referees with things like video sessions and backing up this planned support with face-to-face interactions will hopefully encourage a new class of stripes from either gender to stick around.
“Younger officials can have the opportunity to learn from the people who are experienced in the game,” said Spada.
“We have guys who have worked in the NHL, the Olympics. We have guys who have worked high level American Hockey League. The OHL and Memorial Cup. And even guys who have worked at the highest level of our league would be guys that we’re considering for this.
“We’re asking them to help us.”
The pilot program for new officials is expected to launch before the end of October. The goal is to build a library of circumstantial video to assist officials with the finest of points within a very fast game.
“That’s the second phase of this,” said Spada. “All our games are on video and we’re able to now take that video and use it properly. We’re taking that video and teaching the officials on those situations.”
No-one says their favourite player is the ref. The great refs have universally exceptional people and outstanding skating skills to make the whistle work.
“I have been successful in business because of officiating a lot of the times because I have been able to stay calm – but firm,” said Spada, who runs a family-owned brokerage and sells lakefront properties in the Lake Erie area.
“You definitely want to be able to communicate well with an upset coach and be able to talk him or her down. But you also have to be tough.
“There’s a point where you will allow it, and there’s a point where you say: ‘Whoa – that’s it.’”
Life on the road for Spada was the toughest part of being an NHL referee – recognizing on the other hand such experiences are what drive the dreams of others.
“It was three or four guys against the world. Nobody was there to get your autograph,” said Spada, before imparting some well-worn advice.
“People who can get to the spots without effort frees your mind to see the game. The best skaters can easily gap to officiating if their mind can see the game well.”
It takes a special person, but Spada is living proof it’s possible to whistle your way to the top.