The need for sports officials continues deep into the winter sports season. However, while finding someone to officiate a basketball game might be tough, the candidate pool for hockey is even smaller.

It’s problem schools and clubs are facing, nationwide.

But the state’s referee-in-chief says that isn’t necessarily the case here.

“It’s always a little tougher because the number one credential that you have is that you can skate. And then you have to be a little ‘thick-skinned’ as we say,” Thor Nelson said.

Thor Nelson is the top dog when it comes to North Dakota’s hockey refs. Prior to his current role, his resume speaks for itself.

“I’m a kid from Minot, ND. I worked two Olympics and I worked in the NHL for 23 years. So, anybody can do it, it’s just a matter of taking that next step and putting yourself out there,” Nelson said.

After taking off the skates, he’s seen the officiating numbers fluctuate.

Injuries are a big concern when trying to bring back veteran officials.

“We’re out dodging a frozen rock, basically. The difference for us is we’re always on the playing surface. We can’t ever get off of it,” Nelson said.

Current ref Jordan Kelly knows this all too well.

“You definitely gotta keep your head up. Kind of react to the play. Know where it’s going. Face-offs get a little tricky depending on the players,” he said.

“A lot of lacerations. You know, skates are awful sharp, so if you happen to fall and a skate steps on your hand, there’s no coming back from that. You’re out for a while. The falls are tough. We’ve had a couple of senior officials that fell. One guy broke both arms in one season. So, he decided that was the end of his career and he now officiates football,” Nelson said.

But the injuries haven’t stopped officials like Kelly from coming back year after year. He’s been reffing games for nearly two decades.

“I actually really missed hockey. I was into it for a while and kind of lost touch with it. But then, you get to the point where you come to the games and you like want to get back out there. It just brings the feeling back of getting on the ice and hanging out,” Kelly said.

Nelson says the referee retention rate is about 25 percent. Recruiting former players early has helped keep the numbers high in North Dakota.

“If we can keep them after two years, we can hang onto them throughout their career, whether it’s a 10-year career or 30,” Nelson said.

“The young kids really like being out there with the older guys and getting the experience with them and learning,” Kelly added. “It’s just more, I’d say, getting them involved the more they can work with an older official, the higher they’re going try to pursue it.”

Kyle Stephens is a former player who’s been skating since he was a toddler.

“To be honest, to start it was just for extra money, but then I kind of fell in love with it,” Stephens said.

Ten years later, he’s officiated all levels: from high school to college and even junior league.

“There’s a lot of room for growth. We’ve got a lot of good contacts here in Minot and it’s a lot of fun,” Stephens said, which is something Nelson and Kelly can agree with.

“It sure is fun to watch the kids that grow up in our community move on. We have seven officials from Minot, ND who have worked World Championships. That’s a pretty good feather in our cap in a small town,” Nelson said.

“It’s just fun to be out here. You see these kids when they start out little, and you ref them all the way through, then all of a sudden they’re reffing with you. It’s fun,” Kelly said.

But it isn’t all fun and games for the rest of the country.

Nelson says USA Hockey is down about 40 percent for officials.

“There are states on the east coast that are canceling between 50 and 70 hockey games a weekend for youth sports. It’s a tragedy for the kids, but without the officials, they just can’t have the games,” Nelson said.

Right now, North Dakota has more than 700 registered hockey officials in the state. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to fully staff every game.

“It’s difficult for an official to work more than three games on a Saturday. Has it happened? Yes, we’ve had officials work five games on a Saturday. But, we don’t encourage that. Sometimes, it’s what the numbers dictate that we have to do. We try to have different officials work the games all the time so the teams don’t see the same official over and over. The more officials we have, the better things work,” Nelson said.

Nelson says when he really needs officials, they always answer the call.

“To their credit, you know, we said, ‘The game needs you.’ And they’re back. It helps the game and we can keep playing,” said Nelson.

Nelson says if you would like to become a hockey official, he encourages you to reach out to a school’s athletic director, or go to the USA hockey website for details on how to get involved.