Monday, May 14, 2012

N.H.L.'s last 'sneaker referee' simply wants to fit in

Above: Sneaker Ref Billy O'Sullivan charges up the ice to follow the play between the Sharks and the Blues.

St. Louis--Billy O'Sullivan doesn't like to stand out. In fact, the 16-year N.H.L. veteran referee usually goes out of his way to blend in with the crowd. A quiet father of three and a native of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, his head-down and say-nothing-controversial approach has served him well in the planet's best ice hockey league. Yet, fans and players would never know this--his disdain for standing out--by watching O'Sullivan perform his job.

Attempting to soothe his pre-playoff game nerves he jokes around with the two other officials in the comfortable referees' room in the bowels of the Scottrade Center before finishing a semi-green banana. The game, only thirty or so minutes away, will be his 300th post-season appearance and the league plans to recognize the accomplishment with a brief JumboTron video highlight reel (for a ref?). He hates to stand out.

He calmly tosses the banana peel into the waste basket. He is ready. When the three men stand--all similar in height in shoes--and exit the mahogany-covered room to make their way to the ice for the matchup between the Sharks and Blues, O'Sullivan, much to his chagrin, noticeably stands out. He is all the sudden the shortest of the three ... by far.

You see, O'Sullivan is the last of the "Sneaker Refs" from the late 1990s. He has earned a nickname from his peers: Last of the Mo-sneakens. During the latter part of that decade, N.H.L. officials, many seeking to reduce the risks of retirement aches and pains, pushed comfort over quality and nearly 70 percent of the referee workforce dropped skates for sneakers.

"Ice skates and skating in general can take a toll on the body," said Greg Vernovich, the retired O.H.L. and N.H.L. official who is often credited with starting the sneaker movement in 1997. We all just wanted to be comfortable. It was not a political statement by any stretch."

By joining together the game's enforcers played their cards well. "We didn't step in to prevent them from wearing sneakers because they threatened to strike and we didn't feel like dealing with all that," said Neil Belkin, the league's director of officiating from 1991-2001. "So, a lot of guys wore sneakers. Plus, it wasn't technically illegal."

The sneaker movement lasted just four or five seasons, that is, for all but one determined man. 

"Sneakers are all I know," confessed O'Sullivan, looking at a 1998 photograph from his first game using sneakers. "It's been a long road. One by one I witnessed my fellow refs abandon sneakers--something they fought so hard for--only to return to skates. I'm not at all criticizing them because working games with sneakers, I truly believe, is an art. It's not easy. I wear two sizes too big to get more surface area on the ice. You know, more friction helps me stop and start more easily."

Early on, O'Sullivan (and most of the sneaker refs) was vilified for substituting a steel blade with a rubber sole. He often fell behind the action. And, even more, he ... fell. "I'm not going to sit here and say that it was easy. I missed calls. I was regularly at the opposite end of the ice from where the action was. And, I fell. I fell in the neutral zone. I fell by the boards. I fell behind the net. I fell in the circle. I fell in the locker room. I fell while talking with captains and coaches. It took me about three seasons to get used to my sneaks."

Currently, N.H.L. referees are not required to don ice skates when officiating games. Rule 4893.34.S-12.k-L-U-720,9-B states, "Officials and linesman are highly encouraged to wear ice skates in order to keep up with the game's rapid pace. However, the referees hold complete discretion regarding this matter. Footwear is a personal choice."

He has clearly exercised this choice. O'Sullivan has no plans to return to skates, as he just signed a deal with New Balance to sport their sneakers for three years--most likely through the end of his officiating career. Actually, he has only worn New Balance since leaving skates behind fifteen years ago. Perhaps it's the most appropriate name of sneaker for him.

"I chose New Balance mostly because of the name," he says half-jokingly, or so it appeared. "No, I really did. Back during the sneaker movement, other refs that had turned to sneakers had said it was tough to balance. It was a whole new balance-ing experience."

Remarkably, O'Sullivan claims he hasn't taken a spill since 2004 and that he hasn't fallen behind the play since 2001. Mostly because he hates to stand out.

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