March 26th, 2019

From K9s to Ice Dogs: Hatter treating pro-hockey reffing with utmost respect

By Medicine Hat News on August 9, 2017.

Some people get to the top of their profession by taking an escalator, says Medicine Hat’s Chris Schlenker. Others, like himself, have to take the stairs.

Schlenker is one of only 33 National Hockey League referees and it was hard work and attitude, he says, that helped get him to the top of his craft. The 33-year-old Hatter, who played four seasons in the Western Hockey League and a year of pro in Germany before joining the Medicine Hat Police Service for 10 years, made his NHL debut wearing the striped shirt last season. He worked 52 games in the American Hockey League and 28 in the NHL.

“There are only two things you can really control,” Schlenker told a group of 12-year-olds attending Gay Dubeau’s Platinum Star Power Skating School at the Family Leisure Centre on Tuesday. “One is attitude; the other is effort.”

Never a star player and overlooked in the WHL’s bantam draft, Schlenker said his attitude, coupled with his desire to succeed, led him to work harder than many others, and the result was three years with Regina Pats and a fourth with the Prince Albert Raiders in the WHL.

Schlenker’s hockey skills were limited however, and once the one-year pro stint in Germany came to an end, he joined the local police and served with the canine unit.

His life began to change when a friend suggested he take up hockey officiating. As was his style, Schlenker went all in. Within three or four years, he took part in a WHL officiating exposure camp, earned a position and went on to become the WHL’s referee of the year in 2015-16, combining his WHL work with police department shifts.

Last year, he was offered a job working NHL and American Hockey League games, so he resigned from the police force. His dream became a reality in October when his first NHL game as a referee was in Montreal’s Bell Centre. “I looked around and there’s Carey Price and Shea Weber and I’m thinking ‘I have no business being on the same ice as these guys.'”

Answering questions from the kids, Schlenker admitted to having a favourite NHL team growing up, and said yes, he did officiate one of their games this year. “I think I called six or seven penalties against them and only one or two on the other team,” he said.

A number of rival players from his WHL days still play in the NHL (Andrew Ladd, Ryan Getzlaf and Brent Seabrook, to mention three) and some of them “have recognized me and come up and said hello,” said Schlenker. He recalls a particular reminiscence with ex-Brandon Wheat King Eric Fehr, who played with Pittsburgh last year. The two had a chuckle while talking about a fight they had in Brandon when Fehr was 16 and Schlenker 17.

It’s all business on the ice, however. “They have a job to do, just like we do. They’re all really good guys, but it’s an emotional game.”

He told a story about getting accidentally slew-footed by superstar Sidney Crosby and getting an apology from Sid the Kid at the next whistle.

Whether it’s a Hockey Night in Canada game in Toronto or a Tuesday night game between Carolina and Florida, “you have to be prepared,” said Schlenker, sporting a summertime beard that will come off before he reports to training camp in a couple of weeks. “Couldn’t have a beard with the police and can’t have one in the NHL, so I’m growing one this summer for the first time in 11 years,” he said.

Being a referee in the NHL comes with no guarantees, said Schlenker. His work is constantly under review by a team of supervisors and “I could get let go anytime.”

He’s planning on a long career in the bigs, however. It was a hard climb up those stairs, but he likes the view from the top. “I look around and a lot of the plays I see up close make me go ‘wow’,” he said. “Sometimes I’m just dumbfounded how I can be on the same ice as them.”

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