How Much Do NHL Referees Travel? (72 Games Per Year)

by Dennis Rupee | Updated On: March 9th, 2022
nhl referee

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Oh, referees, you know those guys wearing the stripes that we all love to hate. Whether we like it or not those refs are just as crucial to making the NHL work as the players and coaches are. Did you ever stop to think about how tough of a job that must be? How difficult would it be to call the fastest game on Earth? What is their schedule like in any given season?

NHL Referees are full-time employees of the NHL and there are only 35 of them meaning that yes, in fact, NHL Referees do travel, and they do it a lot! NHL Referees are assigned in pairs to officiate games throughout the NHL schedule meaning they can rack up quite a few miles during the season as well as multiple trips across the US-Canada border. The average NHL referee officiates about 72 games a year. Only 10 fewer games than the schedule for any NHL team.

Life as a Referee 

Referee-Dave-Jackson
Referee Dave JacksonPhoto by Mark Mauno licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The life of an NHL referee is a lot more like the life of an NHL player than you might think. An NHL game is 60 minutes long and unlike the players on the ice, they will be a part of every single one of those minutes. Body preparation becomes a key part of the day-to-day life of an NHL referee. Long-time NHL linesman Greg Devorski mentions how his routine includes “a whole lot of stretching” when asked about how he prepares for an NHL game. During the NHL season, these 35 individuals live very similar lives to NHL players in the sense that any given day will consist of travel, working out, watching a film, recovery, and a game if it is on the schedule.

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Why Be a Ref?

There are 35 referees and 35 linesmen employed full-time by the NHL for any given season. Each of these individuals will spend the season on the road, away from friends, family, loved ones, and will not be thanked for it either. I could probably count on one hand how many times I’ve seen a ref get clapped for unironically (not counting of course Wes McCauley when he makes one of his legendary showman calls). So what makes the boo’s, the loneliness, and the wear and tear of the body worth it? 

One aspect that may help is the fact that NHL referees will make between $200,000-$400,000 a year based on seniority and games officiated that year. For the select referees that get selected to officiate in the playoffs, they can make up to $18,000 per series. For comparison, the NHL player minimum is $650,000. While an NHL referee will not make the millions of dollars that many of today’s players will get paid to partake in an NHL season, they can definitely take care of their families with that money.

Another perk of working in the NHL is that when the season ends in early April you get to go home for a few months. From April to early September when preseason games startup, NHL referees will get some much-needed time off. This time can be spent recovering, catching up with friends and family, and actually traveling for enjoyment for a change. That 5-6 month break is not something many other jobs can offer.

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Expenses of a Ref

The NHL takes care of many of the expenses that could be expected for a ref to incur during the season including reimbursing for travel and food while on the road. However as mentioned before many referees will spend money paying into the officials union, into gym memberships, physical therapy, training, whatever they may need to keep their bodies and minds in the right space to keep up with the fast-paced NHL schedule.

Many of the expenses of being a ref are alleviated once they make it “to the show”. Unfortunately, most referees will never be NHL officials. Many refs will spend their careers in youth, high school, college, and minor hockey. While getting paid to officiate the games, many referees will have to pay their own way. Traveling, food, membership fees, and equipment are just a few of the many expenses these individuals will face if they choose to pursue this career.

How to Become an NHL Referee 

Hockey-Ref
Photo by Doug Kerr licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Just like being a player in the NHL, becoming a referee is highly competitive. The journey for most will start as a player, then when that part of their career is over they will transition into officiating. For some, that transition happens at 15-16 and for others, it may come after a professional career. 

Officials must be trained and licensed through their countries governing hockey body (USA Hockey, Hockey Canada). Referees are given “levels” and must move up the ranks to officiate older age groups and higher levels of hockey. For those that do a good enough job, they may find themselves officiating high-level junior or college games. Working their way up the ranks just like a player would hope with the goal being to garner the attention of the NHL. 

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The NHL game is extremely fast and officials must be able to keep up with the level of play around them. This is why the NHL set up the NHL Officiating Amateur Exposure Combine hoping to find former players who have competed at the professional, college, or junior level looking to transition into officiating. This program takes former players with no officiating experience and fast tracks them into higher levels of hockey because of things like skating ability and understanding of the game. Several current NHL referees have come out of this program already. This is probably the best route if you wish to have a career officiating in the NHL but it is still possible the traditional way as well.

The Short of It

Next time you watch an NHL game maybe give the guys in stripes a little bit of a break. They are being asked to make split-second decisions in a super-fast game all while traveling all over North America. The life of an NHL referee is not for everyone but for those that do it, they keep the game we all love going night in and night out. All while getting booed every step of the way.

Simon, the founder of Brave Stick Hockey, started playing hockey in 2003. He launched this website in 2018 to help new hockey players and fans learn more about the game and have more fun while learning.