Drew Cohen appreciated people who are unappreciated.
There are few folks less appreciated than ice hockey referees. For the past 6 years, he’s been one himself.
Remarkably, Drew is just a high school junior.
He plays alto sax in Staples’ jazz band, and gives music lessons to Bridgeport students. But it’s on the ice where his true passion lies. And that’s where he’s made his biggest mark so far.
From age 7 to 14 Drew played hockey in the Greater Bridgeport Junior Hockey League. But even as an 8-year-old he watched the officials. He saw how they skated, made calls and interacted with players and coaches.
“I wanted to get to know them, even if they didn’t want to know me,” Drew says.
At 11, he earned his first certification from USA Hockey. The exam was online. He didn’t have to prove he could skate.
Now — several tests later — he’s a member of the Hockey Referees Association of Connecticut. Though USA Hockey recommends not officiating your own age or higher, he has whistled a collegiate women’s pre-season game.
“I always like things to be fair,” Drew says. “As a referee, you have to be fair. By being fair, you can make the game better.” He’s a strong advocate of mutual respect between players, coaches and officials, and tries to develop that without yelling.
Refereeing is a big responsibility. “You have to act like an adult, and be professional. A 16-year-old can be lazy in some parts of life. But you can’t do that on the ice. You have to make judgments, make calls, and sell them — whether you’re right or wrong.”
Among Drew’s challenges: explaining calls to coaches and players. Asserting himself when things get personal. Controlling a game when it threatens to get out of hand. Earning respect from colleagues who are 2 or 3 times his age.
It doesn’t always work. Drew shakes his head as he recalls a game in Shelton. A coach would not stop yelling at him.
“I froze,” Drew says. “My partner — across the rink — screamed at the coach. I didn’t have the courage to stand up to someone much older.” He pauses. “This season I will, though.”
He explains the key qualities of a good referee: consistency in calls, confidence and communication (verbal and non-verbal). Of course, a hockey official must also skate well. And he has to really, really know the rules.
Every year, Drew heads to Canada for a referee camp. A number of National Hockey League officials are there. He has gotten to know many of them. He emails them with questions, and after a recent preseason game in Bridgeport an NHL ref gave him a game puck.
The hockey referee fraternity is “like a family,” Drew says. “It goes from the NHL down to me. We all look out for each other. We know everyone puts up with a lot of stuff.”
Drew Cohen gets ready for action.
When he calls a game well, Drew feels a sense of satisfaction. His confidence grows — and not just on the ice.
“Most of the times when you’re young, you’re not in a position of power. You can’t affect things,” he says. “Doing this makes the rest of life seem easy.”
Yet Drew knows that — even before a game begins — people have judged him by his age and size. “Sometimes I’ve been reffing longer than my 24-year-old partner. I just have to accept that I’ll be judged. If I get a complex about it, I’ll be refereeing for someone, and not for the game.”
The best compliment he gets is rare, but meaningful: “We didn’t even notice you out there.”
The money is good. Last season, Drew earned more than $2,000. This year he’s aiming for $3,000.
His goal is to be an NCAA Division I official within 10 years. At one point, that seemed far off. Now — working at the highest level possible for his age — he thinks he can do it.
So what advice does he have for anyone else thinking of becoming a hockey referee?
“Don’t try to prove yourself,” he says. “Just be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”