While Chilliwack’s Ethan Bowen and Brett Rylance enjoy productive rookie seasons in the BCHL, a third local is getting his first taste of junior A hockey.
Connor McCracken has been on the ice for several Chiefs games this season, working as a referee.
The twenty year old describes the first three months as ‘quite a ride.’
“The beginning was a feeling-out process and I was a little flat-footed the first couple games adjusting to the speed,” he said. “But now, I feel I’m pretty well adjusted and I’m really enjoying it.
“It’s been awesome getting to work my first few games here. To work in front of nearly 3,000 people is absolutely breathtaking and not something I ever thought I’d get to experience.”
Before this season, the biggest crowd McCracken worked in front of was maybe 150 for a junior B game.
His first official home assignments came at the BCHL Showcase in September, working in front of smaller crowds. McCracken considers his true home debut to be an Oct. 26 visit by Victoria.
There were 2,333 fans in the Prospera Centre stands that night.
“Of course the guys (his fellow officials) had to give me a couple rookie laps where I go out there and skate by myself,” he laughed. “It was definitely nice soaking that in. I was a little jittery at first, but once I got my feet under me and got into the flow of it, it was just another hockey game.”
Officials are used to not having any supporters in the building when they work, but McCracken has looked into the stands a few times and seen friendly faces.
“It makes me laugh a little bit because sometimes the ones booing me the loudest are them, just trying to give me a hard time,” McCracken said. “It puts a smile on my face for sure.”
For all the verbal abuse and second-guessing referees get from the non-friendly faces, it’s legit to ask why anyone would want to the job.
“Obviously I didn’t go as far as I wanted to playing the game, so this is an opportunity to stay involved in hockey at a high level,” said McCracken, who played minor hockey up to midget. “Working with players and coaches who are potentially going to be in the NHL in the near future is an unreal opportunity.”
The speed and skill of the BCHL is well beyond anything McCracken experienced before this year, and he’s had to adapt to players and coaches who are trying to test the new guy.
“Most coaches recognize that this is my first year in the BCHL because they haven’t seen me around before, so they’ve been picking their spots to see if they can get under my skin and find any weak spots.
“They try and twist our words a little bit. We have a conversation with them, and say one word wrong, they try to catch you off guard. You really have to be careful with the words you select because they’ll turn it back on you so quick.
“A quick conversation can turn into quite a heated argument.”
McCracken has a simple rule.
Respect him and he’ll respect you back.
There are 17 head coaches in the BCHL with 17 distinct personalities.
“I think it was my second or third game in the league, working a game in Coquitlam with Chilliwack,” McCracken recalled. “Brian (Chiefs head coach Maloney) is usually a treat because he knows he won’t get anything out of us by yelling and screaming. But in this game he was frustrated because we’d tossed a couple players near the end of the game.
“I needed him to put a couple guys on the ice and he barked at me, but I didn’t take it to heart because it’s the emotion of the game.
“The next day he sent me a text apologizing and I was blown away by that.”
The most important thing McCracken has learned is that level-headed communication is essential. It’s not enough to make a call without explaining it to the players and/or coaches.
“It is an emotional game, so we need to try to have conversations with the players and coaches,” McCracken said. “Hopefully they realize our side of it and they explain their side of it. Get it off our chests and go from there.”
It wouldn’t be worth doing if McCracken wasn’t having fun, and he truly loves what he does.
He likes skating over to a goalie during a stoppage and getting a laugh with a quick quip.
“You try to pick your spots to make it a little light-hearted, so it doesn’t seem like you’re always Mr. Professional out there,” he said.
Just as the players are trying to develop their games to move up to college hockey, and hopefully the pros, McCracken has his sights set on big things.
The BCHL is a developmental step on a road that hopefully, eventually, leads to major junior, minor pro and, fingers crossed, the National Hockey League.
“Some of the guys I work with have worked in the Western Hockey League and even the American Hockey League,” McCracken said. “They’ve worked their way up the ranks and know what it takes, so I’m just trying to be a listener and take it in. There are guys who’ve taken me under their wing because they remember when someone did the same for them.
“Hopefully in the next three to five years I’ll find myself working in the WHL and I’ll go from there.
“Maybe I’ll get some international stuff and ideally, working in the NHL would be the dream.”