Zoom Workouts and On-Ice Drills: The Life of a Ref in the NHL Bubble

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Given his delightful habit of announcing fighting majors and coach’s challenges as though he were hyping an upcoming monster truck rally, it’s no surprise to find Wes McCauley in an enthusiastic mood when he hops on the phone for an interview Monday afternoon. “I know I can speak for the whole group,” the veteran NHL referee says. “Everyone’s excited, everyone’s got a little bounce to them. We’re more than ready to go.”

He’s making this call from his Toronto hotel room, ensconced in the Eastern Conference playoff bubble as hockey prepares to resume amid the coronavirus pandemic. Teams began arriving over the weekend, fresh off abridged training camps at their respective home rinks, ready to chase the strangest Stanley Cup in history. McCauley and his 19 fellow officials, however—another 20 will work the West in Edmonton, with 10 refs and 10 linesmen at each site—have been in town since July 21, sharing a floor at the Fairmont Royal York while similarly participating in their own minicamp to shake off the rust.

No wonder the zebras are antsy.

After traveling from his family home in Maine and quarantining for three days in his hotel room, McCauley says, the referees and linesmen held their first group skate Friday, and have been returning for two-a-days ever since. “The conditioning’s the worst part, because we just keep skating,” McCauley says, although there is much more. Linesmen drop pucks. Referees practice entering the zone, finding optimal sightlines, and getting to the net in the middle of heavy player traffic. Everyone participates in functional movement drills and edgework.

The work isn’t limited to the rink, either. They attend classroom-style Zoom meetings, where they review unusual plays from the regular season and get quizzed about new rules. A hotel gym is open for use at designated hours but officiating fitness director Dave Smith also holds virtual workouts, heavy on core and agility exercises to help simulate the skating stride. “We’ve been quite busy,” McCauley says. “We really haven’t stopped. I think it’s served us well.”

Indeed, even as COVID-19 put the sports world on pause, McCauley knew he needed to stay sharp. So he watched replays of games he worked this season, then touched base with his refereeing partner from that night to discuss what they could’ve done better. He hopped on his Peloton bike and pedaled until his legs burned. Once the restart was rounding closer into view, daily video calls with fellow NHL officials were added to the agenda, alternating between classroom sessions run by director of officiating Stephen Walkom and grueling 45-minute programs with Smith that forced McCauley to get creative with his space.

“One day, I had to do it up in my bedroom,” he says. “My wife [Bethany] wasn’t that happy, because she didn’t know I was doing it and the bedroom was a mess. But the majority of the time I did it outside. My kids are older [Riley, 19; Emma, 17; Maggie 12], so we made it a family thing. They’re hockey players, and we were working through a lot of dry-land training, simulating being on the ice, so they’d be in the background, off screen, doing the workouts too.

“They didn’t finish all of it. I kept bugging them, saying they couldn’t keep up with the 48-year-old.”

Now that he has been in the bubble for almost a week, McCauley has settled into a steady routine of daily PCR testing, daily temperature checks and symptom screenings, constant hand-washing and mask-wearing, and voluntary self-isolation when he is not at the rink. “I’m feeling extremely comfortable stepping on the ice with all the safety and health protocols that the league has put into place here,” says McCauley. “I have no reservations.”

What about when the emotional cauldron that is playoff hockey starts bubbling? What about when a scrum of players are pushing and chest-puffing around the net? NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, responding to questions from SI about potential regulations involving person-to-person interactions during games—fighting, face-washing, group hugs after goals—wrote in an email that the league is “not mandating any changes to on-ice behaviors, but my guess is things will look a little different.” So will McCauley be extra vigilant about policing these sorts of interactions, even subconsciously, to avoid the additional health risk?

“I guess I can’t really speak to it, because we haven’t experienced it yet,” he says. “I guess when we step into a hockey game, we just try to go into the game and let the game unfold. Every game unfolds a little differently than others. Some nights you have face-washing, more compared to other nights. It’s a tough question to answer, because I don't know what’ll happen.

“The likelihood of injury, when we step on the ice, is in the back of your head at all times. I can speak firsthand last year, in the playoffs, just a freak little thing, I got hurt. I guess it’s always in the back of your mind. Once you drop the puck and the game’s going, you’re into it, the players are playing, they’re competing, our job is to keep it fair and safe. I think we just go do our job.”

Each official in Toronto and Edmonton will work two exhibition games as a last-minute tuneup, beginning Tuesday afternoon, before the Stanley Cup qualifying round kicks off Aug. 1. When that happens, the referees will be switching to a pealess whistle that is reportedly easier to clean and requires less force to blow (therefore, the thinking goes, reducing the health and safety risk of trilling spittle; an electronic whistle was considered, Walkom said on a recent conference call, but ultimately rejected by the refs). For McCauley, this equipment change holds a special meaning: The new whistle, the Fox 40 Caul, was named after McCauley’s father, the late longtime director of officiating John McCauley.

“It’s quite an honor,” McCauley says. “I’m looking forward to it, obviously.”

If anything is getting McCauley down, it’s the same homesickness every player, coach, trainer, equipment manager, front-office official and other team personnel will experience in the bubble, for however long they must remain. “You spent so much time at home with your family, and you got into quite a routine,” McCauley says. “Our life is made up of being on the road quite a bit, where we come in and out, in and out. We actually had a set schedule, where for the first time, on a consistent night-after-night basis, we sat down as a family for dinner.”

A common area exists for the on-ice officials to hang while socially distancing, and they are free to grab lunch together at any one of the hub’s many open restaurants. But McCauley doesn’t see much of the linesmen and other refs outside of workouts and skates, preferring to self-isolate as an extra precaution. Still, he can sense the growing excitement during every Zoom call and conditioning drill. Hockey is almost here, and when the players take the ice to finish this historic season, McCauley and his colleagues will be right alongside them, helping make sure everything stays on track. “Guys understand that when we wake up tomorrow morning, it’s game day,” he says Monday, “and everyone’s looking forward to dropping the puck again.”