Calling the Shots

March 13, 2019

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BUFFALO, NY - Focus is critical for Jamie M. Tobias ’17 from the moment he clocks into work.  A high stick to the face, a puck to the head or a crushing blow between a pair of 250-pound hockey players are occupational hazards that come with his job as a linesman in the National Hockey League (NHL). 

At 24, Tobias is the second youngest official among the league’s 68 referees and linesmen.  For novices of the sport, each NHL game includes four officials: two referees (identified by their orange armbands) who supervise the game and two linesmen who drop the puck for face-offs, make offside calls and flag hand passes.  Linesmen also break up fights between sparring players.

“Getting hit by pucks and players is quite common,” says Tobias.  So too is the lashing NHL officials take from players, coaches and fans. 

“I was 12 years old when I started officiating games and I didn’t like it at all because everyone was always yelling at me.” He’s since developed a thick skin. “I’ve learned the players and the fans are mad more at the shirt than they are at me, personally.”

Tobias glided onto the ice at age three, when he laced up his first pair of skates. Throughout middle school and high school, he played hockey at the AAA level (the top competition level available to youth players) and officiated on the side to save money for college.  But at age 18, the former forward traded in his hockey stick for a whistle.

“I felt I had exhausted my playing career and officiating was a way for me to stay in the game,” he recalls. 

Tobias earned his stripes officiating games for the NCAA, the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) and the Atlantic Hockey League (AHL).  Between work and travel, Tobias averaged a 30-plus hour work week.  Nearly a full-time job for a full-time college student. 

“It was good work and it paid my tuition bills but balancing both wasn’t always easy,” says Tobias. “It helped tremendously that my professors were all understanding and accommodating of my schedule.”

With plans to become a neurosurgeon, Tobias was studying biology, psychology and neuroscience at Canisius when the NHL brought its Exposure Combine Camp to Buffalo looking for a few good officials.  Impressed with Tobias’ speed, intensity and overall skating skillset, the American Hockey League hired him as a linesman.  The following year, the NHL offered Tobias a contract, effective immediately following graduation in summer 2017.  He signed on the dotted line, putting on hold his plans to pursue medicine. 

This season, Tobias is scheduled to officiate 80 games, including four involving the Buffalo Sabres.  He works an average of four games a week, which puts Tobias on the road close to three weeks out of the month at a time. 

Home or away, Tobias says that for him, the best part about being an NHL official happens before he drops the puck on the ice.

“It’s before the game when we get to skate out there and do, what we call, hot laps as referees.  We skate around to get warmed up and the crowd is watching the team video and the players are coming out on to the ice.  That has always been so exciting for me and even more so now.”