Ben Gawlik is skating toward the NHL as a referee

Alex Spilotro

In a perfect hockey game, the referees are invisible. They glide across the ice, out of harm’s way from the puck, or worse – the players. The coaches, players, and fans all nod their heads in agreement for each call, whether it be a simple icing call or a two-minute penalty. However, these games do not exist. More often than not, screaming matches erupt. Fans throw their hands in the air and go after the officials, causing a sense of overwhelmedness and anxiety for even the highest level ref. However, West Ottawa alumnus Ben Gawlik blows the whistle with confidence. 

Starting his hockey officiating career at age 14, Gawlik feels comfortable wearing stripes on the ice. Over time, the 2019 graduate worked his way up in the world of hockey officiating, starting in the USA Hockey Junior Officiating Development Program and now taking part in full-time officiating in the North American 3 Hockey League and the North American Hockey League. 

I’ve been involved with the sport of hockey since a very young age. I can remember going to the rink to learn to skate at the age of six years old and starting hockey the following year when I was seven,” Gawlik said. “When I started playing, I played for the Holland Ice Dogs, the local youth organization for five seasons and then when I was in 5th and 6th grade I played for the Michigan Nationals A and AA travel teams also in Holland.” 

Spending that much time on the ice, Gawlik made numerous memories with coaches and teammates. “While playing for West Ottawa, the most memorable moment for me was beating Grandville in 2018 in overtime to win the regional title,” Gawlik said. 

After graduating, Gawlik took his jersey off and put the stripes on, and focused his hockey journey on high-level officiating. “My father is the one who really got me into reffing. He has been an official since he was very young as well, so it’s kind of been in my blood. I can remember going to big college games at Joe Louis Arena to watch him work like the Michigan vs. Michigan State game when I was very little and thinking how cool it was that my dad was working the game,” Gawlik said. “I think that’s where I got the officiating bug and knew it was something I wanted to pursue in the future. When I was fourteen, my dad took me with him to the rink in Holland for the yearly seminar that he runs where new and returning officials are required to attend in order to receive their certification,” Gawlik said. 

After receiving his certification, Gawlik was ready. While referees certainly have their challenges during games, Gawlik realized that most of the challenges that he would face would be off the ice. “The Officiating Development Program requires a lot of travel and being away from home most of the year. I don’t get to see my family and friends back home in Michigan nearly as much as I would like to,” Gawlik said. “That has been the most difficult part of the program for me.” 

Officiating for the North American Hockey League and the United States Hockey League, Gawlik has undoubtedly had to deal with intense events while wearing the stripes. “One altercation that sticks out to me was back in November. During the last few seconds of the game, a player illegally checked a player into the boards causing everyone on the ice to break out and fight each other. For officials, this is our worst nightmare,” Gawlik said. “I can remember getting in-between two players while my partner was in-between two others and being extremely overwhelmed by the whole situation. Eventually, we got everything sorted out and the teams cooled off, but that’s definitely the craziest and most intense event so far.”

Dealing with crazed coaches, upset fans, and all-out brawls can feel overwhelming for new officials. However, Gawlik’s transition from playing on the ice to officiating went smoothly. “Playing my whole life helped me to understand how the game works and all of the playing rules. The most difficult part about the transition is learning communication skills,” Gawlik said. “The best officials have great communication skills, which helps them in conversation with any players or coaches.”

Gawlik loves his time wearing stripes on the ice. In the future, Gawlik plans to continue officiating and follow in the footsteps of his father. “My future goal with officiating is to work in the next league above which is professional hockey. Eventually, the end goal is to work for the National Hockey League, the Olympics, or college hockey,” Gawlik said. 

It’s no easy feat to be a hockey official. Dealing with players, coaches, fights, and fans can easily take a physical and mental toll on the referees. However, Gawlik loves the process. He felt a calling to become a part of something that he loved, and he followed his heart into a career path that he cherishes, an admirable accomplishment from the West Ottawa graduate.