ZURICH Ė They want to make sure that everybody has a great and smooth game, but theyíre not there to win points. In a Q&A with IIHF.com, veteran referee Danny Kurmann, who has been at the Olympics in Salt Lake City 2002, Turin 2006 and Vancouver 2010, talks about his experiences and his hopes to be nominated for Sochi 2014.
How was it for you when you were nominated for the Olympic Winter Games for the first time?
Itís a dream to be part of the Olympic Games. Already as a small child I was dreaming of the Olympic Games and was fascinated with the Games, the torch, the rings. I even organized kind of a small Olympics in our neighbourhood. The first time I was nominated for the Olympic Games was an incredible feeling for me. In total I went to the Olympics three times and every time it was something unforgettable to be part of the Olympic family.
Also for us itís like a four-year cycle and there are many things that have to be in line for you Ė fortune, health, fitness, sport politics. Iím working for my fourth participation. At the Closing Ceremony in Vancouver 2010 they presented Sochi. I knew Iíd be four years older and not the youngest but the refereesí slogan ďI have a dreamĒ fits for me.
What was the first Olympics you followed?
I was born in 1966. The first Olympics I followed was Munich 1972 and half a year later I was in Munich with my parents and had the opportunity to see the Olympic park, the Olympic Stadium, the Olympic Tower, so I could witness it a little bit. I remember swimmer Mark Spitz and how well he performed and visited the pool. That was my first impression of the Olympics.
How did it come that you landed in a winter sport like ice hockey?
I played ice hockey and changed to refereeing and became a professional ref in 1997. Suddenly it became a realistic goal to be part of the Olympics and World Championships in this capacity. It was a motivation for me because I knew if youíre good and if you get good critics from your supervisors and the IIHF you can be part of it. Thatís when I started dreaming about going to the Olympics and later it became a realistic goal. It was too late for Nagano 1998 but it worked out for Salt Lake City 2002.
When did you start to play ice hockey?
I started to play in Lucerne when I was 7 or 8. I was rather late. I was on the same team with [two-time Swiss Olympian] Thomas Vrabec, who also started to play hockey there but I was even not close to his skill level. I changed to officiating when I was about 15 or 16 after breaking an arm. The coach recommended me to try it. I enjoyed it and I have never regretted this step.
To enter the ice in a full arena gives goosebump feelings for a player. How does it feel for a referee?
Itís similar for a referee. But going into a game you often donít know what to expect. It can be challenging. It sometimes feels like going into jungle with a Swiss army knife meaning you have something but you donít know what can happen. You try to be prepared as much as you can and you have an idea what could possibly happen but you cannot predict everything. You let the game sink in. Sometimes you have experiences that give an adrenaline kick.
You also officiated in six other European leagues as part of the Referee Exchange Program. Can you tell us about these experiences?
Itís quite different in the various countries. The experience I remember most was going to Russia. I arrived there and nobody spoke English. Also some of the officials didnít either but you still have to get along. I didnít know what would come next, what food I would get but it worked out and it was fascinating.
It was great to learn about other hockey cultures especially in Russia. As a kid I saw how Soviet and Czechoslovak teams played at the Spengler Cup and it was always fascinating to watch them. To go in these countries as a Swiss and officiate games was a fantastic experience. The atmosphere in the arena in Russia was also quite disciplined while fans in Switzerland can be very passionate.
You also have kind of an advantage because youíre unknown to the teams and they complain less and donít know how you would react. It was a very valuable experience.
Do you remember something special in particular from your games?
There are always positive and less positive things you remember. Positive was the Olympics in Vancouver and the atmosphere throughout the city. It was similar to a certain extent at the three World Junior Championships I officiated in Canada. And to be on the ice with superstars and see their skill level is always a highlight. These are great experiences.
And there are of course negative experiences like if a player gets injured and youíre sometimes made to feel guilty as a referee, or if youíre upset about something or a newspaper writes bad about you, which are things that are also part of the job and you try to forget after some days. But itís the nice experiences that remain.
You talked about superstars. Ice hockey has become faster too. How do you experience this as a referee in the last 15 years?
If I watch videos from games 15 years ago I sometimes think it feels like a slow motion. Hockey has become much faster and I also see it on the ice sheet. Also, I have become older and have to do more for my fitness. The players become faster. The four-man system is a relief for us and a reaction to the increasing speed. If youíre good at reading the game you have more time to judge a situation instead of skating behind the puck. It was a good decision for the sport and also for the officials. Officiating with the three-man system at top level wouldnít be legitimate anymore nowadays.
What we also know is that the increasing speed has brought with it more injuries, hits to the head, concussions. Itís something also we as officials always have to think about and how to make the injury rate fall. Weíre not the main responsible but weíre also part of this chain.
Like among players there can be age differences among on-ice officials as you indicated. Is it a challenge for a more experienced ref like you?
Itís clear that 25-year-old linesmen or young referees have physically other preconditions than the more experienced officials. The advantage of older refs like me is experience. You find shorter ways by predicting where the game will be played. I like to work with the younger generation and pass my knowledge. As an experienced ref youíre often asked questions and for support. Itís fun for me and I donít feel like a ďpiece of scrap ironĒ. When officials come together theyíre like a brotherhood where age becomes relative.
But everybody has to do physical tests and if youíre among the older participants you sometimes have to accept that some things donít go as fast as they used to.
Danny Kurmann calls a penalty at an IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images
Do you stay in touch with international referees outside of IIHF events?
Sometimes an e-mail or skyping or a visit when youíre nearby but mostly you are in touch at events and itís always like a big reunion when you go to an international event. There are guys who have been at many events too like Slava Bulanov. It feels like Iíve been at the same tournaments with him for decades. When we see each other weíre like brothers who just havenít met for a couple of weeks. As an international referee you have colleagues all around the world you meet at tournaments and camps.
You had such a camp before the start of the season with referees and linesmen from all over the world.
It was nice to see all these guys together also outside of a hockey tournament. For me itís quite easy to come to that camp in Switzerland compared to those who travelled from North America for example. The camp went on quite quickly. It was a lot about sport and tests but also to get information about the procedures and Sochi 2014 and watch videos about rule interpretation. Itís a great opportunity and an honour at the same moment to be part of such a camp.
What remains as highlights from the three Olympics youíve been as a ref?
There are so many things. At the closing ceremony when small kids sing the anthem Iím almost moved to tears because itís over and because of the joy to have had the chance to experience the Games. I almost get goosebumps just when I think about it. Itís a wow experience to be there not just by buying a ticket but by earning it with hard work on the ice over several years. Being at the closing ceremony with your hockey friends is a moment I enjoy and feels like getting a medal around your neck.
Have you had special moments from games at the Olympics you always remember?
A special moment is when youíre on the ice during the national anthem and watch the players who you usually see on TV. Suddenly youíre on the ice with them and want to contribute your part so they can play their best hockey and excite the fans. Thatís the challenge of a referee, to contribute so people say itís been a great game.
Itís well-known that players stay at the Olympic Village with athletes from other sports. What is the Olympic lifestyle for referees?
Unfortunately weíre not at the Olympic Village although I once had the opportunity to visit it. I remember they had a McDonaldís where they donít have to pay. Iím not sure how often they use it but it was there at least. You see them walk around there in the apparel of all the different nations. Thatís quite fascinating.
Weíre there as officials so thatís not the place we stay although I must admit I wouldnít mind staying there, that would be kind of cool. Weíre outside in normal hotels. You canít compare with the spirit of the Olympic village but itís usually good hotels with nice rooms and meeting rooms we use.
At the Olympics youíre in a group with NHL referees you normally donít see. How was this for you and were you able to exchange knowledge with them?
Thatís also a fantastic experience. You meet these people and you notice they also put their trousers on one leg at a time. You quickly find a common denominator and thereís no arrogance. They donít pretend they know everything and also ask us how we interpret IIHF rules. It quickly becomes togetherness and before going to bed you sit together and talk about the games. The mixing of IIHF officials and National Hockey League officials goes on very fast and it works. Itís fantastic to experience it because in the end itís all about the game.
How do you see your chances to go to Sochi for a fourth Olympics?
I hope to be there. I gave my best in the last four years and will continue to give my best but the decision needs to be made by others. You have thousands of referees whoíd like to be there but thatís unfortunately not possible. I really hope Iíll make it and if Iím not there I wish the guys who will be there that they will also be able to experience what I have experienced three times.