With a quick flourish of his hand, Michael B. Barrett drops the puck and drifts out of the way as hockey sticks clap together, fighting for control.
Amidst the blur of green and white jerseys, Barrett moves back to the edge of the action, eyes fixed on the puck and players. He floats to and fro, swiveling across the ice, always watching and waiting.
In milliseconds, Barrett does a quick hop and pivots to skate backwards as the players charge toward him like a herd of steers.
Faster than you can blink, Barrett throws his right arm in the air and his left hand to his mouth to blow his whistle. He holds his arm up for a moment then drops it down to his knee, lightly tapping it once with the palm of his hand.
The player goes to the penalty box. Moments later, play resumes, and Barrett slips away into the background. An invisible presence, he only make himself known when he absolutely needs to.
“When I come off the ice after a game — a good game, a physical game or just a game that’s not going well — it’s pleasant to hear a parent who knows me personally say ‘I didn’t even know that was you out there,’” he said. “Perfect. The game is not about the officials. It’s about the players.”
To casual spectators, Barrett, a partner at Barrett & Sramek in Palos Heights who represents plaintiffs in civil disputes, is just another referee.
But to those in the amateur ice hockey world, he also bears the title of supervisor of officials for the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois and referee-in-chief for the Illinois Hockey Officials Association, both part of USA Hockey.
Barrett oversees the more than 1,100 referees who officiate 28,000 games across the state annually, ranging from youth and adult leagues up to ACHA College Hockey. He is also president of the Chicago Fury, a Tier I Elite 10-team hockey club in Orland Park.
Between going to meetings, managing personnel, reading hundreds of game reports and officiating games, hockey is practically a second full-time job for Barrett, particularly during the peak of the season between September and the end of March.
“It’s still fun. The day it stops being fun is the day I’ll find something else to do,” he said. “I don’t see that happening for a long time.”
In his dual role as supervisor of officials and referee-in-chief, Barrett oversees the group that handles game assignments for referees and is responsible for the curriculum and training of officials. According to USA Hockey rules, officials have to be recertified annually, and Barrett attends every seminar to speak with officials.
After officiating a game, referees file game reports detailing game misconducts and match penalties, which can lead to suspensions. If a parent or spectator gets unruly and violates USA Hockey’s zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate and disruptive behavior, Barrett also receives an incident report.
He is always on-call, and whenever a report is filed, it sends an alert to his second cellphone dedicated to hockey. His wife, Bernadette Garrison-Barrett, also an attorney, calls it the “batphone” because most of these calls come in after 10 p.m.
“My phone dings all night long, and my wife is a saint for putting up with it,” Barrett said.
Once he receives a report, he refers it to two AHAI committees that investigate incidents and hold disciplinary hearings.
Sole practitioner Kevin P. Bolger, who heads the AHAI suspension and review committee, said Barrett is even-tempered, fair and always seeking to do the right thing. Officials supervisor is “the most sensitive position in the organization,” he said, because it requires working effectively with players, parents, coaches, referees and the board.
Several years ago, a Russian youth hockey team came to play in a tournament, and the team’s only goaltender hit a player with his blocker, a pad worn on one arm. The move could warrant an ejection and possible suspension.
After Bolger and Barrett spoke with players, coaches and parents from both teams, they decided to let him play the rest of the weekend “with a stern warning that’s not how we play hockey in America.”
“He can lay down the hammer if he has to, but he’s a good guy,” Bolger said.
Cook County Circuit Judge William Edward Gomolinski, an AHAI board member, said if a rule seems ambiguous, Barrett asks the committee for advice on how to enforce it properly.
“That’s refreshing,” he said. “He is someone who knows the rules and doesn’t want to break them, and that speaks volumes to his character.”
Between hockey periods and off the ice, Barrett is constantly smiling and laughing with fellow game participants and fans.
But once the horn sounds, he’s cool and calm as he observes the game.
Even when a puck comes hurtling toward him in front of one team’s bench, he spryly leaps back and onto the sideboards to let it pass under him. A few minutes later, Barrett jumps in the air to avoid a puck that ends up grazing his right leg.
Contact is part of the sport, so just like the players, referees get injured occasionally. Barrett has been hit by the puck countless times, leading to knocked-out teeth, broken fingers and, in his most serious injury, a broken femur. Serious injuries are rare and the majority are minor, he said, and referees tend to shrug them off.
Officiating hockey is more difficult than other sports, Barrett said, because referees have to cover a roughly 17,000-square-foot rink on skates in a fast-paced, physical game with 12 players and a rubber puck that in the NHL can travel more than 80 mph.
“We get criticized a lot, but the judgment involved is fast. You have to make a snap assessment, and once you’ve made that assessment, somebody is going to be unhappy about it,” he said.
There’s a lot of conversation that happens on the ice between players and officials, and Barrett would rather talk constantly to keep a game flowing than disrupt it with whistles. Sometimes a quick chat or light joke that gets some laughs can diffuse an escalating situation and eases players away from a possible penalty.
Finding the right words to cool tensions, Barrett said, is a mixture of his skills as an attorney and instinctual parenting. He got involved in the sport through his two children, Michael and Monika, and over the past 17 years went from being a hockey dad to a coach, official and Fury president.
Today, Michael plays NCAA Division 1 hockey for the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, and Monika plans to try out for the hockey team at Miami University in Ohio again next year.
John Dunne, AHAI’s president and a referee, said Barrett’s attitude on the ice brings an ease to coaches and players because he is fair, never confrontational and firm but respectful in his officiating.
While some coaches and officials think they’re the stars of the game, he said, Barrett isn’t one of them.
“He blends in and does his job,” Dunne said. “He just wants to be a part of it.”
Barrett is also known for his humility and generosity, Dunne said, and quietly helps others in the hockey community without seeking attention.
When Fury player Derek Zike was paralyzed from the chest down from a game injury in 2009, Barrett organized fundraisers.
Three years ago, the Fury collected donations for care packages. Barrett surprised Dunne when he called to ask how he could get them to Dunne’s son, Colin, a Marine serving in Afghanistan whom Barrett had never met.
Referees are paid for games, but Barrett and other officials volunteer to do charity hockey games for free. He also has done pro bono legal services for small hockey clubs, helping them organize into a corporate entity, stay up to date on annual state filings and develop internal bylaws.
Dunne said Barrett has provided legal help for several people he knows, refusing compensation. One fellow official still tries to repay him.
“Every time they officiate together, he puts a dollar somewhere in his bag,” he said. “Mike will try to find it and give it back.”
For Barrett, volunteering is his way of giving back to hockey and a recognition of how much his law career, and hockey, have given to his family.
Growing up in Tinley Park, Barrett became fascinated with the law watching his dad, Anthony M. Barrett,litigate. Barrett now represents plaintiffs in torts and workers’ compensation claims and does estate and real estate planning.
The youngest of his three brothers, Will County Associate Judge Brian E. Barrett, also followed their father into law.
Barrett didn’t play hockey in his youth, but he got involved in it nearly 20 years ago after he attended a Chicago Blackhawks Christmas party at the United Center with his then-2-year-old son.
The boy was skating around with his head down when he accidentally knocked over another toddler — the daughter of former Blackhawks enforcer Bob Probert.
As his life seemingly flashed before his eyes due to Probert’s tough-guy reputation, Barrett said, Probert smiled and told him they just needed to dust the kids off and send them on their way again.
“It’s hockey. They run into each other every once in a while. Don’t worry about it,” Barrett recalled Probert telling him. “That’s how it all took place. Now, we’re fully immersed in the sport.”