By Ross Forman – James Ugone was, quite simply, intrigued about the Advanced Development Program, run by IHOA under the guidance of USA Hockey. He was at one of the required pre-season IHOA seminars when the instructors spoke highly, with first-hand knowledge, of the program.
Ugone was 14 when he started officiating, mostly to earn some cash from the 8U and 10U games he worked. He continued to officiate at age 15, but then his schooling and playing career pushed ahead of his path as an official.
Now 27 and living in Chicago, Ugone is in his fifth season as an official – and his second in ADP.
“After playing junior hockey for several years and taking some time away from the game after my playing career came to an end, figuring a way back into hockey was a main focus of mine,” he said. “I landed on officiating.
“Simply put … I joined the ADP to advance to the higher levels of hockey.
“There is more to working a hockey game than just putting your gear on and stepping on the ice. The ADP offered classroom sessions to dig deeper into the rulebook and its application than you normally would hear in a seminar. It also gives you the opportunity to bounce ideas off other officials and instructors, as well as have in-depth discussions about the game.
“The classroom time involves a lot of video (review), which gives you the chance to observe and think about obscure situations that may happen in a game before they ever happen, leaving you better prepared and lending some confidence for future assignments. Additionally, being in the program gives you a better chance to secure assignments for higher profile games, especially in the post-season, as well as opportunities to move into junior or college hockey, if desired.”
IHOA’s ADP is a 57-member referee contingent this season, with a diverse group of skill levels, led by longtime local officials who have skated at every level – locally, nationally, and internationally. Brad Baumruck, 37, who lives in Plainfield, is the current ADP coordinator, his second year in that role, bringing 21-years of officiating experience, and he is a top-tiered Level 4 referee.
Baumruck followed the ADP path set by Erin Gnagni, who is, without question, one of the most accomplished female officials ever from Illinois. Gnagni has officiated the prestigious NCAA Frozen Four four times, including twice at the top-tiered Division I level. She was a referee at the 2014 Winter Olympics, has officiated in the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL), seven IIHF Women’s World Championships from 2007-2013, the 2008 4 Nations Tournaments, and the 2009 U18 World Championships, including the gold medal game.
And Gnagni, who lives in Elgin with 21-years of officiating experience, vaulted from IHOA.
But, ADP is not about Baumruck, Gnagni and others to boast of their feats, but rather, to prep a new generation of Illinois officials for referee (and linesmen) stardom, or at the very least, sharpen their skills to be the best local referee.
ADP, like many things, is now a virtual program, though once the season truly kicks off, so too will the traditional ADP on-ice and classroom sessions.
ADP last season had once-a-month sessions in Hoffman Estates, with additional learning programs held in Oakbrook and throughout the Chicagoland area.
Now, though, ADP is run via Zoom.
“ADP is not just for the rising young superstars; it’s for everyone – all officials,” Baumruck said.
Gnagni added, “The ADP is not just for young officials. The goal of the program is to train and develop officials to advance in officiating at any level.”
“The program has been fantastic in every way for me personally. I wanted a way to be around officials who have worked for a long time and have worked at the higher levels, in order to learn from them while also getting opportunities to work games that I might not have gotten without the program,” Ugone said. “In my first season with the program, I was fortunate enough to get multiple championship assignments, both as a linesman and referee.”
Ugone also had the chance to officiate in Michigan and Minnesota, thanks to ADP, and he was scheduled to work this past March at the United Center for one of the Illinois High School Hockey State Championship games, which was canceled due to the pandemic.
“Those opportunities would not have been there for me without the ADP,” said Ugone, who noted that his on-ice confidence has soared thanks to the ADP. He added that his judgement and simple on-ice presence have increased, too.
In addition, his communication with coaches and players has opened and excelled more – tips he learned through the ADP.
“When a coach or player is upset, they often just want to know what you saw and your interpretation. My confidence and communication have made de-escalation a much simpler task,” he said.
Ugone is one of the older officials in the ADP, and with that comes a greater responsibility to represent the program in a positive way.
“I feel I need to set an example for how to conduct oneself on the ice and in the locker room,” said Ugone, who knows eyes are watching his every call, and also his every non-call.
Officiating is, after all, an art form, he said. “There are times to make a call and times to let the play continue. That has been one of my biggest takeaways from the program. Trust yourself to know when to step in to make a call and when to lay off.”
Not all of Ugone’s favorite memories from his stint with ADP came on the ice. One of his favorite came in the classroom, he said. “An instructor was telling a story of dealing with an aggravated coach, and the coach wanted the official to give an explanation of a call and then wanted a rule number to reference,” Ugone said. “Knowing that the rulebook ends at 640, he told the coach the rule he was referencing was 641b. I don’t think that’s a wise move for most, especially if you don’t have an established relationship with the coach, but it gave the class a needed laugh.”
Shane Gustafson, 25, has been officiating for 13 years, even before he skated for the Crystal Lake South High School team. He now lives in Greenville, S.C., and officiates the ECHL and AHL.
He spent 2 years in IHOA’s ADP.
“I remember constantly being surrounded by people who had the same passion for officiating as I did,” in ADP, Gustafson said. “I was constantly around people who I could bounce questions and situations off, and just learn from them.”
Gustafson has long been an officiating sponge, always listening and learned from others, then incorporating into his life, on and off the ice.
He said ADP’s classroom sessions “easily formed the building blocks for the officiating career I have today.”
“The biggest takeaway from ADP was just how much hockey was out there,” Gustafson said. “When I joined the ADP, I had no clue what kind of opportunities lay ahead as an official, nor how to get there. Not only did the ADP give me the knowledge and skill sets to constantly get better, but the program gave me the opportunities to get my name out there whether it be working higher levels of hockey, forming connections and relationships with people in charge of other leagues and such. The ADP pointed me in the right direction for starting a full-time career in officiating.
“Another giant takeaway was just the eye-opening realization of what was possible if you were willing to put in the work. Seeing instructors in the classroom who were skating levels of hockey I wanted to get to was motivation and helped me stay dedicated to mastering my craft.”
Gustafson’s time in ADP also led him to high-level games, regardless of his age. His ability overshadowed his years of experience. For instance, he was selected to officiate an Illinois High School State Championship game at the United Center – and he was a high school student himself at the time.
“Being in the ADP was a huge part of my growing as an official,” he said.
Even though he, admittedly, didn’t really know what to expect when he joined the ADP.
“I don’t think many people know the serious side of officiating. By that, I mean the side of officiating where people attempt to make a career out of it,” Gustafson said. “I never knew that I could travel the country working hockey or move to different locations to live for a hockey season and work some of the top hockey in the country, but the ADP introduced me to a lot of this information. It showed me what kind of official I needed to be to achieve my goals and gave me all of the right tools to succeed.”
Gustafson said the Combined Division championship game at the United Center was “easily one of the coolest experiences I have had as an official and I can honestly say it would not have been possible without the amazing instructors I had, the valuable lessons I learned, and the incredible officials I got to work with every weekend,” he said.
“I will forever credit the ADP with helping me get to the point in my career which I am at now and would strongly encourage anyone who is serious about officiating to join and give it their all.”
Ugone echoed Gustafson.
“I’d encourage more people to try out or join,” the ADP, he said. “If someone wants to move up the hockey ladder or simply learn more about the craft to help in their everyday assignments, then the program will help immensely. Everyone is very welcoming and wants to help each other.”
Gustafson added: “Just try it … you never know what you are capable of until you challenge yourself out of your comfort zone. But, you need to be 100 percent committed and ready to work hard, or you will just be wasting your time. It’s a prestigious group and if you’re selected, you should be very proud, but also aware that you have so much still to learn. Officials with this attitude and hunger for improvement will, more times than not, succeed.”
Baumruck said one of the benefits of ADP is that officials get to talk about the craft – what they’ve seen, experienced and maybe just thought or were confused about – with no fear of judgement.
Several local leagues have allowed games to be switched to the 3- or 4-official system to provide a unique training opportunity for ADP refs.
And on-ice training sessions for ADP officials is donated by leagues, organizations or rinks – just for the betterment of officials.
“ADP is a group effort from the AHAI/IHOA development staff and guest instructors, assigners, supervisors, leagues, organizations, and the development participants,” Baumruck said.
And it’s the Illinois hockey community, and beyond, that benefits from IHOA’s ADP.
Ross Forman has written about Illinois high school hockey for more than 15 years and is the only sportswriter to have covered Illinois High School hockey every year during that stretch. He played locally and then at Indiana University before becoming a referee. Ross was a referee for the State Championship game several years ago at the United Center. Contact Ross by email at Rossco814@aol.com.