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JOHN HELSDON’S STRIPES ON AND OFF THE ICE

Thursday, July 30th
JOHN HELSDON’S STRIPES ON AND OFF THE ICE

Dr. John Helsdon has two main passions in life: science, and hockey. He is a Professor Emeritus at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, and holds a PhD in Atmospheric Sciences. He has also spent the last 12 seasons working as a key member of the Off-Ice Officiating Crew for the Rapid City Rush.

You could say, through his scholastic ventures and PhD, he earned his stripes to teach at one of the top engineering programs in the United States.

Regarding his other passion, hockey, Helsdon earned his stripes, literally: as an official on and off the ice since 1974.

“I was playing in a men’s league in Troy, New York when I was at the University of Albany pursuing graduate school. In this league, each team had to provide its own official. When my turn came around, I officiated our game,” Helsdon said of his introduction to wearing stripes on the ice. “After our game, there was a different men’s league that would play after us, and they came and asked me to ref in their game. I said yes.”

Originally from Buffalo, New York, hockey has followed Helsdon everywhere in life. At the Air Force Academy in 1966, in a near-Herculean effort, he almost made the varsity team as a walk-on freshman. He played club and men’s league hockey while he was at the University of Albany pursuing his graduate studies. When he moved out to Rapid City in 1979 to work at School of Mines, he played with fellow colleagues from the university on ponds with makeshift boards, as Rapid City did not have a hockey rink yet.

Throughout the course of his relationship with the game, his interest in officiating piqued.

“I loved playing the game, but I found myself loving officiating even more,” Helsdon continued. “For one thing, it got me more ice time, but I also got to watch other people play. I could see different skill levels and styles of players, and I enjoyed managing the game as an official. It was one of those things that when my knees got bad, I found it easier to skate as an official as opposed to playing. It allowed me to still be a part of the game.

“After I earned my officiating certifications in 1977, I officiated local youth leagues in New York. They’d pair me with another referee, and I did my best to help develop them in a two-man system,” Helsdon said. “Before you know it, other leagues caught wind of what I was doing and they asked me to help them as well. Eventually, it got to the point where all of the people I helped develop wanted to get their certifications like I did through the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States, or AHAUS, which is now USA Hockey. We got it sorted out to certify them, and just like that, we had about 15 or 20 new officials in the Albany/Capital City area in New York. That’s where my love of educating future referees began.”

Last month, USA Hockey bestowed upon Helsdon the Chet Stewart Award for decades of grassroots officiating volunteer work. Outside of his contributions as an on-ice official in South Dakota, the grassroots initiative that he was recognized for involved teaching youth skaters to become the next wave of officials.

USA Hockey’s website details the recognition: “In June of 2000, USA Hockey established an award to recognize the achievement of a grassroots officiating volunteer…The Chet Stewart Award recognizes an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the officiating education program during many years of service as an official and volunteer. The recipient will have been a grassroots leader in officiating education and development and provided dedicated service throughout his/her career to both the officiating and hockey community.”

Educating youth hockey players in the world of officiating through a youth mentorship program since 2012, Helsdon deservedly fit the bill for his national recognition. According to USA Hockey, he is estimated to have developed around 50 individuals to be officials over the last eight years he has directed the program.

“I had no clue there was an award for this. After I got off the phone with Dave LaBuda, USA Hockey Referee-in-Chief, I had to look up the award to see what it was about. I was truly shocked and humbled,” Helsdon said of his recognition. “I never really looked into an award like this. I always felt that I was just a referee doing my job, and doing my best to teach youth officials. But, I’m very thankful, shocked, and floored that I was recognized on a national level. It was very humbling.”

Just as impressive as Helsdon’s resume in on-ice youth officiating education is how, from the ground up, he helped establish the Rapid City Rush organization’s Off-Ice Officiating team.

“When the Rush first came to Rapid City in 2008, I went into the office and I was greeted by John Hess, the former Director of Game Operations for the team. I told him I wanted to buy four tickets for my family for the first game,” Helsdon recalled. “John was personable, so as I’m getting taken care of, we make some small talk. He asked me what my connection to hockey was and I told him I was a referee. In that instance, I hear someone yell from outside of our area ‘Who’s a referee???’ Turns out, it was Daniel Nieves, the original ‘Voice of the Rush’. I responded, ‘I am’, to which he replied ‘Do you want to be in charge of our Off-Ice Officials?

“Daniel explained to me that the team needed to have an off-ice officiating crew for the games, and he was responsible for putting it together. By the way, this was three weeks away from the first home game. He asked me if I wanted to do it right on the spot. I was familiar with how off-ice officiating went from the amateur levels, so I figured it couldn’t be much different. I said yes, he gave me a list of contacts, mostly of Airforce personnel, and I started to build the team.

“Oh, and I told John I only needed three tickets for opening night,” Helsdon finished with a laugh.

Thus, began Helsdon’s eight and a half years as the Crew Chief for the Rush’s Off-Ice Officials. At that moment, he was responsible for putting together the very first crew, all volunteers at the time, that would work the Rush games. Balancing this new responsibility while working at School of Mines had its challenges.

“In many ways, we were all learning,” Helsdon explained. “I was very familiar with the operation from an on-ice side with the scoresheets and such, but there’s so much more with all of the statistics that you have to keep. Add in the fact that this is all going into an online system, formerly PointStreak (CHL) and now LeagueStat (ECHL), it was tough. Luckily, I had a great crew, most in the Airforce, that, whether they knew hockey or not, had a willingness to learn and were great team players. I made sure to cross train everyone on every position in the crew, just in case we had a gap that needed to be filled.

“I can’t take all the credit for getting us started. I had a lot of help,” Helsdon said. “I had a great first group of people that stayed on the crew almost all eight and a half years that I directed it. Some include Ron Twining, Tom Jaros and his daughter, Megan, Justin Patterson and his wife, Teri, and Ron Meggs, who worked for both the Colorado Eagles and the Rush as an off-ice official. Speaking of the Eagles, they really helped us get on our feet with how to operate as a crew. We were a brand-new team and they were established, so I communicated with them often and they were very gracious in helping us get started. We had a lot of synergy all around, and it helped us see success early.”

Off-Ice Officials are responsible for maintaining the statistics of the game, as well as the integrity of the official game sheet. That includes accuracy of shots on goal, lineups, power play opportunities for both teams, and accuracy of penalty minutes accrued, in addition to logging the correct penalties assessed.

“One of the toughest aspects to teach newcomers to the crew, or hockey in general, is that your job isn’t to watch the game. It’s to see the game,” Helsdon expanded. “It’s the same thing I teach youth officials. Watching and seeing the game are two different things. It’s easy to get caught up in watching the game because the skill, speed, and flow of hockey are so captivating. However, you have to put that aside and pay attention to the intricacies of what we’re trying to accomplish.

“For example,” Helsdon continued, “let’s talk about shots on goal. If I’m working statistics, I can’t just go star-struck if Konrad Reeder rifled a shot off the crossbar and it just missed going in the net. I have to have the wherewithal to make the call on if it was a good shot or not. As the sequence is transpiring, I have to apply shot rules. If the puck is fired on the frame of the net, and the goaltender’s positioning prevents it from entering, it’s a shot on goal. If the puck hits the post, or, despite the goaltender gloving or blockering it away, it’s trajectory is wide or over the net, it doesn’t count as a shot. In this case, watching Konrad rifle a shot off the crossbar, I have to put the emotions of how crazy that moment was on hold and deem that it wasn’t a shot because it hit the post, therefore I won’t log it for the game stats. You always have to keep an even keel while performing your off-ice duties. That’s just one of countless examples of that.”

One of the constant challenges the crew faced while Helsdon was at the helm was finding enough people to competently fill out the crew positions. A full-capacity, optimal crew, according to Helsdon, is 14 people.

“For me, the bare minimum you could get by with was 8 people on the crew, of course doing multiple jobs,” Helsdon stated. “That happened quite often after I stepped down in the second half of the 2016-17 season, so I have to give a ton of credit to the team over the last few seasons prior to the 2019-20 campaign. It wasn’t easy by any stretch, but they performed admirably and sacrificed their time to make it happen. Last season, helping out as I did based on my availability, it was great to see a full crew again. Randy Foss, who took over as Crew Chief in December, has done a fantastic job in running our crew today.”

Of the 14 members of the crew, 6 operate at ice-level while the remaining 8 work upstairs.

Starting off the ice-level part of the crew are the two Time Keepers. The Game Time Keeper maintains the 16-minute warmup period prior to the game, the 20-minute game clock for all three periods of regulation, and the 7-minute game clock for overtime. The Penalty Time Keeper maintains the time to be served on major and minor penalties assessed to players throughout the game, and relays game information via headset from the scorer’s table to the Official Scorer upstairs.

The Time Keepers are flanked by two Penalty Box Attendants, one for each team. Their job is to log occupants of the penalty box, as well as accurately release them from their penalty time served back into game play.

Rounding out the ice-level crew, two people serve as goal judges. Simply put, these individuals are perched behind each goal, armed with a clicker to turn on the red goal lamp behind the net. Their sole job is to determine if the puck fully crosses the red goal line, and if so, to turn the light on and indicate a goal scored for the attacking team. From time to time, on-ice officials will defer to their sight to determine whether or not the puck fully crossed the goal line, should a play be deemed a close call.

Upstairs, six people, ideally, work statistics, three for the home team and three for the visitors. The Statisticians log touches of the puck (player to player exchanges) to accurately log shots on goal for both individual players and the team, as well as goals, assists, and plus/minus on scoring sequences. Even though the original goal and assist calls come from the on-ice officials at the scorer’s table, the off-ice Statisticians make sure their call is correct or corrected by the end of the game.

The Statisticians are joined by the LeagueStat Operator in the press box. LeagueStat is the ECHL’s game-sheet program, tracking the Official Record of Match in real-time. The LeagueStat Operator is armed with a computer to input all goal, assist, plus/minus, penalty, shot, and power play statistics from the game.

Lastly, joining the LeagueStat Operator in the press box is the Official Scorer. The Official Scorer essentially brings it all together, maintaining and submitting the Official Report of Match to the league. This includes ensuring the lineups for both teams, all goals (even strength, power play, shorthanded), and assists are correctly marked, while also making sure corrections are made prior to pronouncing the game as “final”. Depending on the team, the Official Scorer and Crew Chief are, more often than not, one in the same.

Throughout his time on the team’s crew, Helsdon witnessed many memorable games and experiences over the last 12 years of Rush hockey.

“There was one time that we had Ron Twining, a long-time member of our crew until his Airforce reassignment to the UK a few years ago, working as the goal judge,” Helsdon began his story. “A shot was rifled on net, missed up high, and shattered the glass in front of him. He had a few cuts and was taken care of, but the team got one of the larger pieces of glass and signed it for him. That, thankfully, hasn’t happened again in front of the goal judges since, but it’s one of those moments you still have to be ready for.

“As far as games go, two stand out to me. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Game 6 of the 2010 CHL Finals,” Helsdon continued. “That game was insane. The most memorable game, however, is one I know all Rush fans fondly remember: the Tulsa game.”

Yes, we’re aware that’s a broad phrase, but Rush fans fondly recall “The Tulsa Game” in question on January 2, 2016. As Rodney Dangerfield once said: “I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out.”

It was the first home game of the New Year, “Halfway to 4th of July Night”. The Rush donned baseball themed jerseys in a baseball/summer themed night. It only made sense that there were “fireworks” for such a summer-y celebration. Both teams combined for a franchise record 216 penalty minutes. Of the grand total, 109 were assessed to Tulsa (franchise record by a Rush opponent in a single game), while the Rush earned 107 (franchise record in a single game). Additionally, 25 of the games 39 penalties were assessed in the final 27 seconds of regulation, totaling 182 PIM, including 18 infractions for 132 PIM after the buzzer sounded. After the dust settled in the Rush win, five players, three from Tulsa and two for the Rush, were suspended for a combined 22 games.

Helsdon finished his memory: “We always take pride in getting the gamesheet correct. We had everything right except a game misconduct that they removed after the game was over, so we originally had 226 PIM total. Nonetheless, we were so busy once the buzzer sounded. A great point of pride for me though with our crew was after the game. On my way home, Joe Babik, Director of Communications for the ECHL, asked me for the players that were supposed to be on the ice at the time that all hell broke loose because they couldn’t determine that from the game film. It was almost a bench brawl, which made it tough on the League to accurately judge that, and therefore hand out punishment. Because of how we tracked statistics by touches of the puck, I was able to go home, pull out my trusty ‘tracking sheet’, and tell him in a matter of minutes. We were on point. Joe shot me an email after that to say we were spot on with our numbers. It was certainly hectic, but I was so happy because of how well we did as a crew that night. We always took pride in upholding the integrity of the game’s flow for the League, and that was a memory I’ll always look affectionately on.”

After eight and a half seasons as the Crew Chief, Helsdon stepped down from the role, but it has not stopped him from being an active participant with the Off-Ice Officials. He still works as many games as he can when he is able to, making him the only member of the team to serve all 12 years that the Rush have played hockey in Rapid City. After all that time, Helsdon looks back on the lessons and the experience fondly.

“In order to be an Off-Ice Official, you have to have attention to detail, and remember to see the game, not watch it. You need to be a team player and contribute to the camaraderie,” Helsdon described. “You have to understand everyone’s role. There are so many different roles, so you have to accomplish yours while respecting what everyone sees in theirs, and contribute to the team. At the end of the day, the team has to support each other and work towards a common goal, which is to record, accurately, the game flow and the status of the game from beginning to end.”

Helsdon concluded: “When I look back on my time as the Crew Chief and as an Off-Ice Official, it was a very rewarding experience for a number of reasons. I got to be involved in hockey, which I love. I got to meet a lot of people on the playing side and coaching side who I got to watch develop and maintain a professional relationship with. On the topic of development, I got to meet up and coming officials in the pro ranks, and watch them develop over the seasons and achieve either senior status in the CHL and ECHL, or advance to the AHL to officiate.  I also got to meet a lot of people off the ice. It acquainted me with the Rush staff, and the people in the crew that I got to work with every night. That was what made this experience so rewarding: the game of hockey, and all the people associated with it. I encourage everyone to look into being a part of our team with the Rush if they’re interested. It was, and still is, so much fun.”

On behalf of the Rapid City Rush, we’d like to congratulate John Helsdon on receiving USA Hockey’s Chet Stewart Award, as well as thank him for his loyalty and service to our organization!

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