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Even when you’re screaming from the stands that they must be blind to miss such an obvious foul, you have to accept deep down that the referee is an essential piece of hockey. We may not always agree with the calls that they make but that doesn’t mean that we don’t appreciate them.

There are currently 35 full time NHL referees and 34 full time linesmen. The NHL also has nine referees and five linesmen who officiate minor league games for both the NHL and AHL. The amount of skill required to be a top-tier referee is incredibly impressive. The old saying that Ginger Rogers was a better dancer than Fred Astaire because she had to do all the steps backwards can be applied to NHL referees as they need to skate backwards and anticipate what the players are about to do.

If you’ve ever wondered how much NHL referees make, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’ll dig into what it’s like to be a hockey ref for NHL games, how competitive the job market is, and how much they earn on average a season.

Referee duties

Officiating a hockey game is an intense job. The referees supervise the entire game and enforce the rules. They also conduct face-offs when necessary. The linesmen help by watching for infractions such as offsides and icing. When required, referees can call on the video goal judge to verify if a goal has been scored. Referees wear padding under their uniform and a helmet to protect them on the ice.

Refereeing is one way for hockey players to stay on the ice and involved in the game after they’ve left the NHL. Former players are often among the most popular refs because they are so close to the game and their experience on the ice is respected.

NHL referees are not associated with a single team and travel frequently for the job. Since they can’t travel with a team, they must organize their own travel. Luckily, it’s covered by the NHL as flights can be incredibly expensive.

NHL salaries

Hockey is a huge sport that has been steadily growing in popularity over the last 20 years. Despite the fact that it has a big international fanbase and a long history, the salaries in the NHL haven’t reached the level of the other major leagues. The highest paid NHL player today is the Oilers’ Connor McDavid with an annual salary of $12.5m. In contract, the highest paid NFL player earns $55.3m a year and the highest paid MLB player earns $43.3m.

Being an NHL player is still obviously a lucrative career, though the wear and tear on the players’ bodies is also extreme. Some people might be surprised to learn that being an NHL referee is also a very well-paid career.

The NHL doesn’t officially release salary details of the referees, but researchers have been able to make very accurate estimates. The average NHL referee salary is between $200,000 and $360,000 per season. The most senior referees likely make as much as $460,000 per season. Each referee that officiates during the playoffs makes a $27,000 bonus for each round that they officiate.

Linesmen are also very well paid. Again, their salary information is all an estimate because the NHL doesn’t disclose these figures. On average they are believed to make between $110,000 and $230,000.

One of the big factors determining where NHL referees fall on the pay scale is their experience. Their salaries increase yearly until they hit the 5-year milestone, when they receive a serious pay jump. The same thing happens again when they make it to 15 years, which is when as far as we know the salary is essentially capped at $460,000.

In order to earn a full salary, NHL referees are expected to officiate between 50-73 games. Most do end up working a full 73 games. Backup referees receive a $1,000 for showing up to the game and making themselves available. There’s an intense workload during the season but then they have a very long vacation at the end of it!

Being an NHL referee can certainly be a long-term career. Of the 35 current active referees, three have been in the position since 1999. This includes Dan O’Rourke who has officiated three Stanley Cups since the start of his career. Several others began their referee careers in the early 2000s. It really is the dream career for anyone with a deep love for hockey.

How to become an NHL referee

Becoming an NHL referee is incredibly competitive. It’s not a job that anyone can do but there are more than enough talented hockey fans and players who have the necessary abilities to fill the limited spaces available.

There isn’t a singular path to follow to become an NHL referee. Many get their start while playing and don’t have any formal training before they begin. Young players interested in refereeing at the lower levels can often do so while still playing.

The first step is to get in contact with the official referee governing body. In Canada, that’s Hockey Canada, while in the United States it’s USA Hockey. These organizations will put you in contact with the local officials who can help you get started as a referee.

Many referees begin as linesmen and then get their first chance to referee when they need to step in for a colleague. As with many things in life, practice makes perfect, so many referees simply get as much practice as possible officiating games at lower levels.

For referees that want more specialized education, there are training schools and camps that they can attend. Most of the instructors are former NHL referees, making the training top notch. Just like with Spring Training for the MLB, league representatives from all the leading major and minor hockey leagues come to these camps to look for the best referees.