At one time Trent Knorr was the greenest linesman in pro hockey, breaking up ECHL fights as a 17-year-old.
“Back then it was pretty scary,” he recalled. “I was worried about pissing (players) off. You want everyone to be your friend. I made my fair share of mistakes, I know that.”
That was seven years ago.
Knorr is 24 now and has risen through the junior ranks all the way to the top, working the 2010 Memorial Cup. But as Knorr climbed, the window to a shot as an NHL linesman became smaller and smaller.
His ECHL experience helps, but it’s in junior where the NHL officiating crew scouts future prospects.
Knorr is part of a select few who’ve been selected and “fast-tracked” for a career as an NHL official.
The NHL brass are big on him.
The problem is they don’t need linesmen. In the next 10 years only a few linesmen will be hired by the NHL but the league could be hiring as many as 10 NHL refs in the next five years.
So Knorr switched to referee.
“When Knorr started refereeing that piqued our interest,” said Bob Hall, a former NHL ref and current director of the league’s scouting and development of officials.
Instead of watching the puck for offsides he watches for high-sticks and head shots. He just finished his first season as a referee doing 45 games in the Western Hockey League and one in the ECHL.
It’s a given there’ll be some sacrifices made by anyone who makes the NHL, but Knorr’s case is unique.
“It’s rare to see a switch from linesman to referee, but at that young of an age, Knorr can do it,” said Kirk Van Helvoirt.
A veteran linesman and friend who has worked alongside Knorr, 33-year-old Van Helvoirt is also highly regarded, having worked this year’s Doyle Cup between the B.C. and Alberta junior-A champions.
“If you’re a linesman, then just about 100 per cent of the time, that’s it, you’re a linesman (for good),” Van Helvoirt said. “It’s not like switching from forward to defence. It’s two different jobs.”
But Knorr did it and he did it successfully enough that, as a rookie, he refereed the second round of this year’s WHL playoffs.
“We liked Knorr as a linesman, but there just isn’t any opportunities coming up,” Hall said.
“He knew he’d have a better chance to make the NHL.”
Under Hall’s watchful eyes, Knorr began the year refereeing the annual NHL rookie camp in Penticton last August.
“I never thought I was going to be refereeing but (WHL director of officiating) Kevin Muench called me last summer and asked me about refereeing and hired me as both just to try it out this year,” Knorr said.
“It seems to have panned out. That and I like it.”
Should he crack the NHL, Knorr would join fellow Victoria native Lonnie Cameron, one of the league’s 33 linesmen. There are 40 referees.
This year Knorr will referee full time in the WHL and BCHL, as well as the ECHL when his schedule allows.
Eventually he’ll make the jump to the (American Hockey League), the NHL’s top farm-league, a move that is less of a change for a ref than it is for a player.
“The WHL has a really good history of training NHL refs,” Hall said. “They get used to travel, used to working large venues and most of all, used to the pressure. So when they go to the AHL the only difference is they’re dealing with men.”
To move up to the next level, an official has to get recommended by someone. In Knorr’s case, Hall was tipped off by former BCHL director of officiating, Frank Broeders.
“Broeders phoned me and said Knorr has an incredible skill set, give him a look,” Hall said.
“We evaluate skating, judgement, and comportment. If they exceed in those three areas, we put them into a program (Knorr is in).”
Getting noticed is the hardest part, Hall said. “Essentially, you have to be the equivalent of the No. 1 draft choice at the BCHL level, then again at the WHL level, then you have to prove it again at the AHL level,” Hall said.
Scaling back without ECHL
The departure of the ECHL’s Victoria Salmon Kings means a loss of 30 to 35 games for Van Helvoirt.
The minor-pro league liked to have a stable of officials in each town rather than travel them around, meaning Van Helvoirt would dress for more games at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre than many of the suitcase-toting Victoria Salmon Kings.
The WHL, on the other hand, prefers to have a variety of officials working
Now settling into an office career and the father of a 19-month-old daughter, the move suits him fine.
However, for anybody coming up through the junior refereeing ranks in Victoria, they’ll be dealing with Van Helvoirt.
“I’ll continue to work BCHL games, with some travel, and as a supervisor for junior B and major midget officials here in town,” he said.
When Van Helvoirt was in his early 20s he too had NHL dreams, but things got in the way.
One of them being the cost of travel to work games for the Western League – a key stepping stone. Until recently, the league wasn’t paying for travel off the Island.
“I knew guys who traveled to the mainland for a weekend’s worth of games. They’d sleep in their cars (to make it profitable),” Van Helvoirt said.
“It wasn’t uncommon. I made the choice to work on my (office) career. You can be the best ref or linesman but someone has to like you.”
Making the cut
Kirk Van Helvoirt and Trent Knorr are both ex-junior players, Van Helvoirt with the Prince George Spruce Kings, Knorr with the Victoria Cougars.
Officials don’t need to have junior playing experience to advance but it helps, Bob Hall said. “It helps to have played the game and to have the skating. But we really look for a ref who manages a fast-paced, aggressive game with control.”