Kelowna referee Steve Papp still recalls the phone call that changed his Christmas plans this season.
The 29-year-old was in Portland earlier this year, waiting to work a Western Hockey League game, when his cell phone chimed with the good news that he was being hired to work this year’s World Junior Hockey Championships, one of the biggest and certainly most important hockey events of the year.
“It was a pretty cool moment, it’s one of those goals that you have as a kid,” said Papp, who has been a WHL referee for eight seasons and is currently working several games a month in the American Hockey League. “I’m a big fan of the World Junior tournament and obviously you would like to play in it. But when I start refereeing I didn’t think I would ever get this chance. It’s worked out. I’m still just in awe that this has happened.”
Papp is one of 12 referees that will work the round robin portion of the World Junior Hockey Championships, being held this year in Malmo, Sweden and beginning on Boxing Day.
He doesn’t know how many games he will work, and as the tournament moves on, his work will be watched closely by the IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation) who will monitor and then select the top referees to work the playoff and medal round games.
For Papp, a married father of a 20 month old son, getting the chance to work the world junior will replace that age old tradition for hockey fans of tuning in to the World Junior tournament during the Christmas holiday.
“As a fan growing up you would always watch it and want to play in it,” he said. “Now just to think I’m going to be be there at Christmas instead of waking up and watching it with my Dad and my brother. I’m sure when I get over there it will start to sink in.”
What’s also starting to sink in is that Papp is getting a chance to impress the NHL this season for what could be an eventual shot at higher levels of pro hockey.
This season Papp has been hired for an average of two American Hockey League games a month, in addition to working eight to 10 WHL games each month. The NHL oversees referee development for the AHL and like players who are hoping to eventually hit the ice in the NHL, the pro hockey dream is alive for Papp as well, although he knows it’s a tough road to eventually make it to the show.
“In the future there will be some turnover (amongst NHL referees),” he said. There are a lot of guys looking for those spots and I guess I’m on the radar. The chance is still there but it’s definitely a fine line if they are hiring at the right time and you are the right guy. Eventually you have to decide if you want to keep pursuing it. The next couple of years I will really know if the door is going to open.”
Working games at the WHL level is far from a full-time job as the men in stripes also have careers. Papp holds down a full-time sales jobs with Falcon Railing out of Kelowna and gets great support on the home-front since he and his wife became parents for the first time.
“Being a father is definitely a lot of fun but it’s challenging when you are traveling a lot and have goals that you want to chase,” he said. “But I have a great wife at home who is very understanding and that makes it a lot easier.”
The World Junior Hockey Championships open on Boxing Day. As a Canadian, Papp will not be refereeing any of Team Canada’s games as per IIHF rules.