The Hershey Bears were one of the original eight teams when the American Hockey League formed in 1938-1939, and Hershey remains the only team still in the league which hasn’t relocated or been renamed. Since that beginning the Bears have seen hundreds of their players advance to the National Hockey League, with many of them becoming coaches and executives in the league.
During all that time there have been numerous off-ice officials for games, but none ever made it to the NHL, until 2010 when Hershey native Kim Payne made the move, not as a call-up or promotion, but as a family move to the Tampa Bay area in Florida.
“I don’t really recall how I got started as an off-ice official for the Bears in 1979, but it lasted until my wife and I relocated to Florida,” said Payne. “At the time my dad, Bob, was the Director of Operations for Hersheypark Arena and Stadium, so I had an in and that’s also kind of the way I got started with Tampa Bay when I moved to Florida.
“I know during my Hershey years, in addition to doing the PA, I did every other job except time on ice, which didn’t start until after I left,” continued Payne. “During those years, I was the only crew member, except for you when you started in 1989, that did the PA along with Jack Gingrich. The ironic thing is when I was eventually hired by the NHL to work Lightning games it was to do time on ice, which I’m still doing six years later.”
Before moving, Payne contacted Jay Feaster, Executive Director of Community Hockey Development for Tampa Bay and the former general manager of the Bears, to let him know he was moving to the area. They talked a bit and Feaster said he would check with Bill Wickett, Executive Vice President of Communications for the Lightning, and that Kim should call him, which he did and they met shortly after that.
“When we talked, there weren’t any positions available in Wickett’s department, but because he knew of my years with Hershey as an OIO, he said there might be something there for me,” Payne said. “I think my first reaction to that was yeah, that would be really terrible.”
Despite Payne’s contacts, it took five years before that happened, because like the Hershey crew, there weren’t any vacancies until someone dies or moves, so he didn’t start until the 2015-16 season.
“I started as a concussion spotter for the NHL, and shortly after that they wanted me to do the TOI job, but I also did goal judge occasionally, but that is no longer a position now,” Payne said. “I did scoring and worked the penalty boxes a few times, but the last five years or so it has been TOI.
“I primarily do the visiting team that are obviously the more difficult one to do, because you don’t know the players, lines, etc. and they wear white sweaters that blend into the ice,” added Payne. “This season they are playing the same team consecutively twice, so you recognize names and numbers by the second game.”
Another thing he mentioned that might not be generally known has to do with an experimental program in the arena.
“The NHL is exploring methods of tracking TOI and other real-time player stats digitally in our building,” Payne said. “I’m scheduled for the Hockey Information & Tracking System (HITS) every game; specifically logging visitor’s Time On Ice using laptop computers, which are all networked with the NHL’s software system. Obviously, we can’t be as precise as their system, but the up side is if that system has a problem there is still our information as a backup.”
The NHL level is more intense because everything is so highly computerized and the players, and their agents, look at all the stats because of the way things are listed in the contracts. Another factor is the way people are betting on games they want that information at their disposal when they place a bet.
There are several differences between the AHL and NHL for the off-ice officials, starting with the NHL crews are paid by the league, not franchises like in Hershey. The NHL provides a black jacket, gray slacks, two white, button-down dress shirts, and two blue NHL-logoed ties, while Hershey provides a blue jacket.
This year the Lightning organization provided OIO’s and ATC’s (Arena Technical Coordinators) a pre-made (boxed) hot, pregame meal. There is nothing provided food-wise in between periods, but bottled water and coffee is available throughout the game.
Despite Tampa Bay having a meal provided at every game, the league provides a $12 per game stipend for food, as evidently some teams don’t provide substantial food for their OIO crews. For the record, there are 768 NHL Off-Ice Officials.
When questioned about if he could change jobs, what he would choose, Payne replied, “It would be Commercial Coordinator, who communicates with the TV truck for the three TV promotional timeouts each period. If not that position, then it would be Official Scorer.”
One other item of interest is that the crew is tested through a saliva analysis twice a week prior to games, and now actually being swabbed on site through the nose, so they have to be at the arena three hours ahead of time instead of two.
Looking back to his Hershey years doing the public address in the old arena and then Giant Center, Kim commented, “I have to admit that I really wasn’t enjoying doing the PA any more, because of all the new production elements and the high view, so I returned to doing ice-level jobs.
“All of this has really taken a lot of the fun out of the game, because it is so much of a business, continued Payne, “not that it hasn’t always been that, but I still look at it as a way to watch a game ,so why not get paid for doing something I love.”