The Performer: Kelly Sutherland, referee

On visualization, taking abuse from the peanut gallery, and what to do when you blow a call.

NHL referee Kelly Sutherland during the Ottawa Senators v. Washington Captials game at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa March 25, 2011.
Photo by Blair Gable

Growing up in Richmond, B.C., Kelly Sutherland often attended the amateur hockey games his dad officiated. An aspiring player, Sutherland wanted to watch the older guys in action. But the camaraderie between the officials made an impression, and at just 10 years old, he started refereeing as well as playing. Soon enough, he abandoned his dream of playing in the National Hockey League and set his sights on making it as a ref instead. A recent player survey named Sutherland the NHL’s best referee, after a decade in the league — an honour he jokingly compares to “the inmates calling you the best warden.” He spoke with Canadian Business staff writer Rachel Mendleson.

Keeping up with NHL players is tough. How do you stay in shape?
I’m a smaller guy, so when I was young, I trained more for survival. But now everybody’s adopted this idea that it’s a lifestyle, it’s a 12-month job. Everybody bought in because it extends your career, and who wants to be working in a career where you’re hurting and sore? I’m in the gym six days a week. If it’s day-of-game, I’ll go run two or three miles and do some light weights. On a day off, though, I’ll do a real good workout for an hour, hour and a half. It’s a lot of core. I try to train the legs a lot. I like to take one full day off a week. Your body needs it.

How to you prepare mentally to referee an NHL hockey game?
Our game is mostly mental. The reason we train so much physically is because if you’re out there and you’re tired, you start to lose your edge. I use a lot of visualization. We get video clips all the time of good calls. I’ve programmed myself so that each infraction on the ice, I’ve got it in my head. I’ve got pictures of what these are, so that when they happen, you just react without even having to think. It’s programmed into you, and it’s almost instinctive.

You’re under a lot of pressure, especially during playoffs. How do you cope?
I love the pressure. It might sound sick, but that’s our rush. I like the games when there’s a lot riding on it, because I think that’s when you’re at your sharpest. Those are the ones you want to work. It’s an excitement. I don’t have any grey hair yet, so maybe I don’t have any stress.

How do officials prepare for the fights and hits that might take place?
Most of our information will come from just watching the sports highlights. On the day-of-game, we’ll meet for lunch. We’ll discuss anything we need to know going into the game, any bad blood between the teams. If I’m working a game where something happened on the ice, and at the time there was no retaliation, but I see that one of my comrades has those two teams coming up again, I’ll shoot him an e-mail or drop him a phone call. It’s a fresh start each game, but you’ve got to have the intel going in. You’ve got to let it happen, but at least you’re aware of it, and you’re prepared to react immediately.

So you really just stand by and let it happen?
Well, if there was a player that I knew kept coming near the goalie, I would go to him early in the game, and I would say, “Tonight, you watch your work around the crease,” to put a bug in his ear. That’s how I work a lot out there, because the job is not black and white. When you see something start to get close to a penalty, you acknowledge it. If they continue on at that point, it’s a penalty because you’ve given the guy an opportunity. People don’t realize there’s a lot of interaction between us and the players. That’s how you survive.

How do you follow the flow of action?
We don’t follow the puck as much as people might think. Our attention’s got to be above the ice, to see if a guy’s getting held, hooked, slashed. When there’s a scramble, you’re looking at players’ reactions, their faces. You’ve got to read the whole environment.

How do you achieve consensus with the other officials on the ice?
We piece all the information together like a crime scene. If you’re given information, you take it, because we’re all trying to get to the end goal. If there’s any reasonable doubt, well, you can’t call a penalty. On the ice, there’s no disagreements. We have our discussions after, but we don’t get into arguments. It’s not an aggressive attitude because we’re just trying to help each other. Our group, it’s real tight. It’s just like a hockey team. We don’t have many allies out there other than ourselves.

Officials take a lot of abuse. How do you keep your head in the game?
You can’t have any doubt out there. When you’re on the ice, the [fans] can be booing or throwing crap, but you can’t second-guess yourself. Whether it’s a good call or a bad call, you have to assume you made the right call, and for the rest of the night, you’re living with that. You’ve got to maintain integrity and call what you see. In my career, when they’ve been yelling and screaming and you go back and watch it later, you’re right most of the time.

What if you’re wrong?
If I happen to see that player at another game, I’ll say to them, “Hey, that was a horse shit call, but from my angle, that’s what it looked like.” Honesty out there gets you your credibility. If I miss something, I miss something. I don’t guess. I’ve got to tell you, we beat ourselves up more than anyone in the media. The next game I go into, it’ll be in my head: “Why did I miss that call? I should have been in position.”

It must be hard to deal with all that negative press.
In the playoffs, we don’t even pick up a newspaper or watch TV, because it would mess with your head too much. That’s the entertainment side of the business, and that’s for the fans, it’s not for us. We have our people and our intel. We’ll talk to each other. That’s how you get the truth.

How do you define success?
The key in this business is to be a consistent guy each and every night. When I evaluate a game, I ask, “Was it fair both ways? Did I call the same style of penalty from start to finish?”

You’re on the road a lot. How do you maintain work-life balance?
It’s tough. You’ve got to have a great wife, a great family. I’ll only see my family four days this month. If there’s a tough side of this business, that’s it.