How Much Do NHL Refs Make? NHL Referee Salary in 2023

Posted on February 26, 2024 by Dan Kent
hockey refs

Ever wondered how much money an NHL referee makes? For all that abuse and the high stress that comes with the job, is it worth it when payday comes?

As a professional sports league, the NHL is known for its high player salaries and multimillion-dollar franchises. But do the referees get in on this big-dollar sport? How much do refs make per game? How many games do they referee per season? What's the yearly salary for NHL referees? Do linesmen and referees make the same amount of money? 

This article will crunch the numbers on hockey referee salaries.

How much does an NHL referee get paid?

The average NHL referee's yearly salary ranges from $165,000 to $400,000. The pay level will primarily depend on their seniority and experience, and bonuses are given to those officiating in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

How much does an NHL ref get paid per game?

NHL referees make between $1,500 and $5,000 per game they officiate. Referees can officiate up to three or four games per week and 70+ games a season, so their annual salary is estimated to fall between $165,000 and $400,000. 

These numbers have changed over the years, and firm current monetary data is difficult to access. The salaries also rise over time. Referees who have accumulated decades of experience in the league can make a lot of money.

Linesmen earn less than referees, so let's review what they make.

What does an NHL linesman make?

The pay for linesmen is slightly lower than the average salary of an NHL referee. Still, it sits at a salary range of $110,000 to $235,000. Their duties are more straightforward than the referees, so they get paid less.

Linesmen stand at the blue line, responsible for making calls related to the red and blue lines, such as icing and offside. This is where the term linesman comes from. They monitor the lines.

They also have another primary responsibility – to break up fights between players.

What do NHL referees and linesmen do?

hockey referee pay

Employment as a hockey referee is a thankless job. But, fortunately for the refs and linesman, they are well paid for their duties.

The referees are responsible for policing the hockey game. They call penalties, goals, and whistle downplay for stoppages. They also drop the puck for face-offs that begin a period or follow a goal.

The referees wear black and white striped sweaters with orange armbands around each bicep.

Linesmen are another on-ice hockey official whose duties differ from the referee. They are responsible for policing plays involving blue and red lines, such as offsides and icing.

Linesmen may report penalties to the referees in most leagues, although this is a rarity. They also drop the puck after offside and icing plays.

The linesmen are also recognizable for wearing black and white striped sweaters without orange armbands.

These duties occur very quickly in an NHL game, so NHL referees and linesmen face a difficult task. Players, fans, and coaches also ridicule them, so life as a referee isn't easy.

A "good night" for a referee is one where they are hardly noticed. This means they've done an excellent job.

Referees are also required to travel frequently to new destinations for games. They aren't associated with any particular NHL team or arena, so they officiate games around North America.

Is being an NHL ref a full-time job?

Absolutely. NHL referees can end up officiating over 70 games a year. While a hockey game is only three hours long, working out to about 210 hours of actual officiating time a year, the travel is extensive, taking up a significant amount of their time.

Does the NHL pay for the ref’s travel?

Although NHL referees are responsible for booking their hotels and flights to and from games, the NHL reimburses the referees for their travel expenses, frequently receiving regular stipends.

How Are NHL Referees Paid in the Playoffs?

Although NHL players do not make a salary in the playoffs, officials do. Referees can earn up to $27,000 per round and linesmen $17,250 per round. This bonus can be a higher rate than their salary – especially when they're selected for additional post-season assignments.

Typically, only the league's most veteran and best-rated officials get to serve in the playoffs – and this number dwindles as the NHL reaches the Stanley Cup Finals match-up. 

Bonuses are likely escalating as well, with a ref officiating the conference final making more than one who officiating the quarter-finals, for example.

How are NHL refs scheduled?

Refs get assigned to particular games by the commissioner of the league. Because there is two linesman and two referees per game, they are paired up and officiate that game together. However, they rarely ref consecutive games with the same partner, making for a gruelling travel schedule. 

Who is the highest-paid NHL referee?

While there is no official list of NHL referee salaries, if I go by experience, I would say that the highest annual salary belongs to Dan O'Rourke or Marc Joannette.

O'Rourke and Joannette have been officials in the National Hockey League since 1999. Both have been reffing playoff games since the mid-2000s. This is a relatively safe assumption considering salary depends on things like game experience and years in the league.

Who is the most famous NHL referee?

It would be hard to argue against Wes McCauley being the most famous NHL referee at this time. McCauley has a ton of experience and has reffed every Stanley Cup final since 2013, besides two in which he was injured.

Often known for some of the best goal and penalty announcements in the league, here is one of his best below.

However, Bill McCreary is a close runner-up. He reffed a total of 1737 games before retiring in 2011. He came just shy of reffing 300 playoff games, coming in at 297.

Mick McGeough was another famous referee who passed away unexpectedly in 2018. He was often vocal, controversial, and recognized as the NHL referee who never wore a helmet. Probably most notable for what many called the "helicopter," he would frantically wave off goals.

How Much Do Amateur Referees Get Paid?

As you might expect, amateur referees get paid much less than professional NHL referees.

Officials who ref minor league games and recreational hockey leagues get paid between $30 and $75 per game, usually over a 75-minute ice time. Minor-league officials can often make more money by reffing multiple games a day.

College hockey refs, on the other hand, are well compensated, potentially making upwards of $400 a game.

Minor leagues typically utilize either a two-ref system, where both operate as a ref and a linesman, or a 1-and-1 system, with one ref and one linesman.

Professional hockey is obviously a faster game, so they employ two referees and two linesmen per game. At the professional level, an NHL referee is also expected to intervene in more violent affairs on the ice.

How much does an AHL referee make?

On average, an AHL referee will make anywhere from $75,000 - $100,000 refereeing a game. Regarding the East Coast Hockey League, I found no data highlighting what their officials make. 

But, judging by the gap between the NHL and AHL, I expect it to be under $50,000 a year.

Referees work a thankless job

Being an NHL referee is the top level of hockey refereeing and a fiercely competitive field. A difficult, high-pressure job where the refs must make quick decisions in stadiums full of thousands of passionate fans and pent-up players.

Before NHL officials went on strike in 1993, the refs and linesmen made just $50,000 to start, with veterans over ten years making $80,000.

Accounting for inflation, the pay is significantly higher now – but the job is perhaps more demanding.

With high-speed camera playback, every decision is scrutinized – meaning everyone sees inaccurate calls.

"You don't know pressure until you've stood in the middle of a sold-out arena, filled with screaming fans and NHL superstars, on national TV, all expecting YOU to make the correct decision in the blink of an eye without any slow-motion replay or multiple angles; where no matter the outcome 50% of people will disagree and hate you." Former NHL Ref

How to Become an NHL Referee?

Becoming a referee in the NHL is no easy feat. It requires years of work and dedication to the sport. And even then, that might not be enough.

As someone who worked their way up from the very bottom (freezing cold 6AM peewee games on Saturday mornings), I can tell you firsthand it's incredibly difficult to get hired by the NHL as a referee.

Former NHL Ref Mathew Wilson

Most referees have played the sport for many years and then decide to switch to refereeing in their spare time or pursue it as a career as they gain more experience.

Pro-level referees are put through rigorous training camps for physical fitness to keep up with the play.

However, being a referee at its heart is about knowing the rule book by heart and making quick but crucially fair decisions in the heat of the moment.

Final thoughts

Most amateur referees in minor leagues are paid on a per-game basis, the pay for which is usually determined by the local area or association. Pay can vary from $0 to $120 per game.

NHL referees make a lot more, $165,000 and $360,000 per year but have to put in many years of work just for a slight chance to get to that level of play.

Dan Kent

About the author

Growing up in a hockey hotbed (Calgary, Alberta. And yes, I'm an Oiler fan), I decided to put my love and knowledge of the game to work. I started at five and am still playing today into my early 30s. By acquiring Brave Stick Hockey and rebranding it to Big Shot Hockey in 2023, I plan to teach people about this great game and educate them on the best equipment and history of the game. On a career level, I am in finance, running one of the largest financial websites in Canada, Stocktrades.ca.

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