Olympics from officials’ side

Veteran referee Kurmann talks about the other on-ice job

13.11.2013
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Sochi is far away behind the green hills. Danny Kurmann poses for a photo in Magglingen, Switzerland, during an international officiating camp with a T-shirt with the referees’ slogan: “I have a dream...” Photo: Martin Merk

ZURICH – They want to make sure that everybody has a great and smooth game, but they’re 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?

It’s 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 it’s like a four-year cycle and there are many things that have to be in line for you – fortune, health, fitness, sport politics. I’m working for my fourth participation. At the Closing Ceremony in Vancouver 2010 they presented Sochi. I knew I’d be four years older and not the youngest but the referees’ slogan “I have a dream” 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 you’re good and if you get good critics from your supervisors and the IIHF you can be part of it. That’s 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?

It’s similar for a referee. But going into a game you often don’t 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 don’t 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?

It’s 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 didn’t either but you still have to get along. I didn’t 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 you’re unknown to the teams and they complain less and don’t 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 you’re sometimes made to feel guilty as a referee, or if you’re 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 it’s 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 you’re 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 wouldn’t be legitimate anymore nowadays.

What we also know is that the increasing speed has brought with it more injuries, hits to the head, concussions. It’s something also we as officials always have to think about and how to make the injury rate fall. We’re not the main responsible but we’re 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?

It’s 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 you’re often asked questions and for support. It’s fun for me and I don’t feel like a “piece of scrap iron”. When officials come together they’re like a brotherhood where age becomes relative.

But everybody has to do physical tests and if you’re among the older participants you sometimes have to accept that some things don’t 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 you’re nearby but mostly you are in touch at events and it’s 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 I’ve been at the same tournaments with him for decades. When we see each other we’re like brothers who just haven’t 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 it’s 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. It’s 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 you’ve been as a ref?

There are so many things. At the closing ceremony when small kids sing the anthem I’m almost moved to tears because it’s 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. It’s 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 you’re on the ice during the national anthem and watch the players who you usually see on TV. Suddenly you’re on the ice with them and want to contribute your part so they can play their best hockey and excite the fans. That’s the challenge of a referee, to contribute so people say it’s been a great game.

It’s well-known that players stay at the Olympic Village with athletes from other sports. What is the Olympic lifestyle for referees?

Unfortunately we’re not at the Olympic Village although I once had the opportunity to visit it. I remember they had a McDonald’s where they don’t have to pay. I’m 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. That’s quite fascinating.

We’re there as officials so that’s not the place we stay although I must admit I wouldn’t mind staying there, that would be kind of cool. We’re outside in normal hotels. You can’t compare with the spirit of the Olympic village but it’s usually good hotels with nice rooms and meeting rooms we use.

At the Olympics you’re in a group with NHL referees you normally don’t see. How was this for you and were you able to exchange knowledge with them?

That’s 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 there’s no arrogance. They don’t 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. It’s fantastic to experience it because in the end it’s 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 who’d like to be there but that’s unfortunately not possible. I really hope I’ll make it and if I’m not there I wish the guys who will be there that they will also be able to experience what I have experienced three times.

MARTIN MERK

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