There won’t be any Vancouver Giants taking part in this year’s World Junior Hockey Championship. But one Vancouver native will play a sizable role in the December 26 to January 5 event in Ufa, Russia.
As the only Canadian referee chosen by the International Ice Hockey Federation to work the annual event, Pat Smith will proudly wear the Maple Leaf under his black stripes and red arm bands. It’s the second time the 11-year Western Hockey League veteran has been selected to officiate the world juniors. (He also worked the event two years ago in Buffalo.) And along with the two Memorial Cup tournaments he’s officiated, the 29-year-old considers the WJHC assignments the highlight of his career.
“I know this sounds like a cliché, but it really is an honour just getting picked to get out of Canada, because I’m a strong believer that we have one of the best hockey programs in the world. And if we’re going to make our players the best, we have to make sure our coaches and our officials are the best too,” Smith told the Georgia Straight in a recent telephone interview from Nanaimo, where he’s now based while enrolled in a resource-management training program at Vancouver Island University. “So just getting chosen to come out of Canada is a huge honour.”
In an effort to keep officiating from becoming an issue at international tournaments like this, IIHF rules stipulate that referees cannot work games involving their home countries. So with Canada’s long and storied history at the world juniors, Smith knows going in that there’s a strong chance he won’t get the gold-medal-game assignment.
But last year, with Sweden beating Russia in the final in Calgary, showed that Team Canada doesn’t always come out on top or even make it to the final, so Smith has to be prepared for whatever assignments he’s given. And he’s looking forward to the many challenges that come with interacting with players, coaches, and even other officials from around the world.
“We have a lot of officials from a lot of different countries, and English isn’t always the first language, so there are communication barriers between us sometimes, and it’s just a really unique learning experience, no matter how you look at it,” he explained, noting that IIHF rules mandate that all officials must have a working knowledge of English. “It’s different people from around the world, but the one thing that unites us is our passion for hockey and wanting to do the best job we can.”
One of the biggest challenges for any official working the international game is to interpret the rule book and apply somewhat different standards from those used in the junior levels across this country and even in the National Hockey League. North American teams at the WJHC have long felt that they could intimidate European opponents with a relentless physical approach to the game. That attitude has changed in recent years as the IIHF has moved to make the game safer, and Smith said that approach makes his job easier than it used to be.
“We’re adopting a lot of those rules that they’ve had for 20 years, as far as being really tough on head checks,” he explained. “Five years ago, you’d see a hit to the head with a shoulder in international play and say, ‘That’s just a good, hard check.’ Well, that’s changed now with such an emphasis on limiting concussions in hockey. Now the rule books are starting to align, and it’s easier to administer those rules in short tournaments.”
Another big difference Smith will have to adapt to is the large ice surface used in Europe. He’s worked tournaments in Romania and Belarus before, which will help ease the transition this time around.
The biggest change the roving referee may encounter in the weeks ahead is spending the holidays on the other side of the world, far removed from his fiancée and family back home. Tournament officials will gather in Ufa—an industrial city of one million located 1,100 kilometres east of Moscow—for a meeting on Christmas Day, and after that it’s all about business. Smith said he doesn’t know much about his destination, but experience has told him that once the puck drops, he should feel right at home.
“I’ve done a little bit of research online: geography, population, tourism, weather. I needed to know whether I’ll be packing the winter jacket or the winter-winter jacket,” he said with a laugh about heading to Central Russia for two weeks in the dead of winter.
With one WJHC under his belt, Smith is far more excited than nervous about the opportunity ahead of him to share the ice with the best junior-hockey talent in the world. And despite the obstacles he’s sure to encounter, he just wants to live by the referee’s creed of doing the best job possible without being noticed.
“If I went there and teams were able to say they were comfortable with me refereeing them, then it’s been a success,” Smith said. “In the Western [Hockey] League, I can develop a rapport with players and coaches. In a short-form tournament, it’s a little more difficult. But if teams can say what I called was a fair game, I’m approachable, honest, and I did what I think was right—even though they may not like it—that would make it successful for me.”
By being one of only a dozen men selected to referee at the world juniors, it’s safe to say Smith has earned his stripes. Starting on Boxing Day, he’ll get to show the hockey world why that is.