BUFFALO — Growing up in an NHL family, the desire to make it to the League often can be a strong pull.
For several at this year’s NHL Exposure Combine, they’re working towards realizing that dream, but as an on-ice official.
The combine, held annually at LECOM HarborCenter in Buffalo, is a four-day camp in which participants put their abilities in officiating-specific skills to the test. The NHL officiating department selects those they have a high interest in, places them in various minor professional leagues, and monitors their progress over the next 2-3 years.
Brock Beukeboom started thinking about a potential new journey three years ago courtesy of his father, Jeff, a four-time Stanley Cup champion during his 13 NHL seasons with the Edmonton Oilers and New York Rangers. The elder Beukeboom felt it would be a great opportunity for his son to stay in the game after his playing career and that he would be a good asset for the next generation of officials coming through the ranks.
Brock Beukeboom was selected by Tampa Bay Lightning in the third round (No. 63) of the 2010 NHL Draft but the defenseman played one season in the ECHL and four seasons in Europe before the 30-year-old retired at the end of last season.
“Every kid wants to play in the NHL,” Brock said. “But the older I got, the more I realized just how tough it is. Everything happens for a good reason and now that I’m older and I’m experiencing this, it’s like, OK, I can’t make the NHL as a player, maybe I have an opportunity here to be a ref or a linesman and still give a service back to the game.”
For Brody Sutter, hockey is what he’s known his whole life, growing up as part of hockey’s most famous families.
His father, Duane Sutter, played 731 NHL games during 11 seasons with the New York Islanders and Chicago Blackhawks, and won four Stanley Cup championships with the Islanders (1980-83). His uncles, Darryl, Brian, Brent, Rich and Ron, all played in the NHL and coached or worked in the League after they retired.
Brody was selected by the Carolina Hurricanes in the seventh round (No. 193) of the 2011 NHL Draft and played eight games for the Hurricanes in 2015-16. But most of his professional career was spent in the minor leagues, and the 30-year-old retired after playing the past three seasons in Europe.
“Everyone thought it was a good idea,” he said. “They’re excited for me. … Obviously this is a path no one in my family has taken.”
That former players like Jeff Beukeboom and Duane Sutter are spreading the word has been a welcome boost to the League’s recruiting efforts.
“They see that this is a great resource and an opportunity for their children to stay involved and not have to coach or be a scout, and stay on the ice,” NHL officiating director of scouting and development Al Kimmel said. “That’s where we all want to be, on the ice. That’s the most exciting part of the game, right? It’s great, the promotion, the assistance we’re getting from people within the game.”
Tyler Spott is at the opposite end of his hockey career. The 22-year-old is entering his senior season as a defenseman on the Northeastern University men’s hockey team and decided to participate in the combine after discussing it with his father, Steve Spott, an assistant with the Dallas Stars.
“It’s a whole different perspective on the game, honestly,” Tyler said. “It’s something I wasn’t expecting at all. Usually I’m the player yelling at the ref. Learning from the professional guys here, you gain a lot of respect because it is a lot more difficult of a job than you think it is. They play such an important role in the game.”
A first-time participant at the combine, Sutter also appreciated the opportunity to learn from current and retired NHL officials.
“I just apologized jokingly, like if my uncle or my dad or anyone back in the day ever said anything to you they shouldn’t have, I apologize,” he said. “I think I’m fortunate my family has a lot of respect in the game, but I know they played hard and they probably weren’t the ref’s favorite player. … But [the officials] have all been great.”
Sutter and Beukeboom have moved past their chances of making the NHL as players and are focused on a new path to the League.
“This is something I want to pursue for the next however long I could do it,” Beukeboom said. “I’m having a blast, meeting a lot of new people and I’m enjoying it, but I do want to take it seriously as well. … This is something that I think it could really be a staple in my life moving forward.”