Mark Rudolph sprinted his way up the officiating ladder.
By age 17 he worked as a linesman in the American Hockey League. While finishing his degree in education at Buffalo State he was close to getting an opportunity in the NHL. His dream job was in sight.
Then USA Hockey came calling and everything changed. Not just for Rudolph, but for American officiating.
The Cheektowaga native moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., as a 22-year-old in 1982 and pioneered USA Hockey’s National Officiating Program. He literally wrote the book on American hockey officiating.
This year, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference honored Rudolph by naming its officiating achievement award after him.
It was a humbling honor for Rudolph, who got his start playing hockey for the Buffalo Regals and refereeing games at the then-brand new Holiday Twin Rinks.
“I was 11 at the time, and you had to pay $5 or $10 for ice time for practice and home games,” said Rudolph, a 1976 graduate of Maryvale High School. “They needed to start training referees, and every game you worked you got a blue card good for one free ice time. I refereed so much by the end of the year I had so many blue cards they gave me $200. That was a big deal for an 11-year-old.”
Rudolph kept working as an on-ice official, climbing the ranks while pursuing his degree in education at Buffalo State. Working in various professional hockey leagues throughout the Northeast, he became one of the highest rated American officials.
That’s when USA Hockey talked to him about a job. The organization was looking to formalize its officiating program and Rudolph seemed a perfect fit with his on-ice background and degree in education.
At the same time, he was getting closer to an opportunity to officiate in the NHL. But the closer he got, the more he witnessed politicking in hiring and assigning officials. Then a good friends was fired from his NHL officiating job.
“I saw a guy I had known most of my life, who always gave 110 percent, get fired,” Rudolph said. “I thought maybe it just was not the right time for Americans in the sport. I thought that if I took this position out in Colorado I’d have a better chance to stay in the sport longer.”
So he took his experiences and his degree and started a program for American officials from scratch. He wrote the official manuals for USA Hockey officiating. He created summer training camps, both national and regional, to help young and new officials get the experience they needed.
“It still disappoints me that it’s still mostly a Canadian game in the world of officiating,” said Rudolph, who was a supervisor of officials for the NHL from 1991 to 1997. “It’s extremely difficult to get in as an American official. I understood the trials and tribulations and all the areas they pointed to saying, ‘Americans don’t have this experience at this level and blah blah.’ I developed programs to try and get those referees experience.”
Just like players and coaches, officials get better with experience. Don Adam, the director of officiating for the NCHC, benefited from Rudolph’s programs perfecting on-ice skills such as positioning, demeanor and official etiquette. He also learned how to negotiate the referee career path.
“He built this program based on his own experiences,” Adam said. “For it to be successful, it had to be built by someone who knew the business inside and out. He refereed at a lot of different levels – amateur, college, pro – so he had a lot of experience. He knew what the challenges were for officials, and he knew how to treat people with respect.”
Rudolph based his programs on education, consistency and experience. And while he worked with different levels, college hockey became a particularly gratifying level of the sport.
“College hockey is intense and even more intense than pro hockey on occasion,” Rudolph said. “Everybody is in that growing state at the college level. Players are growing and developing their skills. Coaches are trying to find their niche in the hockey world and so are the referees. They’re trying to develop their skills and gain longevity in the sport. Everybody is learning at that level, and as a referee you have the added responsibility to make sure everybody is able to showcase their skills no matter what the skill set is.”