The first time Nathan Vanoosten officiated a hockey game he was 12 years old and had no idea what to do with himself.
“I was very nervous because I didn’t know where to stand,” he says, laughing. “I was terrified. It’s funny because the second and third game was night and day from that first game, where I was nervous, and afraid to make that first penalty call or that first offside call.”
Fast-forward 21 years and those feelings of fear have given way to a comfort and confidence that earned the native of Burnaby, B.C., an assignment as a linesman at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship.
“I felt quite a few emotions working my first game in Montreal [Czech Republic vs. Finland]: definitely excitement and some nerves, and at the same time just blessed to be a small part of it.”
Three years ago Vanoosten was in Dumfries, Great Britain, calling lines at another World Juniors: Division I, Group B, where six teams – France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan and Ukraine – were fighting for promotion to Division I, Group A, still one stop short of the top level.
The Dumfries Ice Bowl is a small venue, but it provided a good training ground for what Vanoosten could expect at the Bell Centre and Air Canada Centre down the line. For one thing, the need to block out the drumming and chanting of passionate travelling fan bases.
“You don’t get caught up in it,” says Vanoosten, “but you can’t help but notice it. It’s a pretty cool feeling.”
And for another, the sheer passion and pride everyone brings to the ice.
“The intensity’s always there in these tournaments, whether it’s Division I, Group B, or the world junior championship,” he says. “The players are trying their best, especially when they are representing their country, and we are expected to do the same night in and night out.”
The officials assigned to Montreal and Toronto come from 12 different countries – more than the number competing teams – and just like the players, they need to come together as one unit as quickly as possible.
“We all come from different walks of life and hockey brings us together,” says Vanoosten. “The hockey bond is strong. Everything from pre-game meals to fun events on off-days helps bring this group even closer. So when we step on the ice we know we have the support of our teammates and the supervisory staff.”
Vanoosten is one of only two Canadian officials selected to the event. The other is referee Darcy Burchell. The two worked together during Vanoosten’s first national event, the 2007 World Junior A Challenge.
Since then Vanoosten has called lines at the 2010 World Junior A Challenge, as well as the 2009 RBC Cup, 2013 and 2016 Memorial Cup, 2015 World University Games, 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship and 2016 Canada-Russia Series.
All helped prepare him for his biggest assignment yet.
“Just knowing the tournament format and knowing that you don’t have a lot of time so you have to bring your A game,” he says. “You just have to bring 110 per cent every game. As cliché as that sounds, it’s true.”
Now in his 11th season officiating in the Western Hockey League, Vanoosten averages about six games a month. Living in Vancouver, his full-time job is in construction, working 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The highlight of every top tournament he’s worked has always been the camaraderie with his fellow officials from other provinces and other countries. Relationships also develop through a WHL season, and those often provide more meaning than anything that happens during a game.
“It’s a pretty neat thing to have a kid come up in the pre-game warm-up and ask you how your day was,” he says. “They’re 16 or 20 years old; I’m a 33-year-old guy and there’s not a whole lot in common, but we do have this game. You come to the rink and see a defenceman you know, say ‘How you doing, how was your holiday, how’s your road trip going?’ and they’re willing to talk. It’s one of the most rewarding things.”
Vanoosten will have plenty of stories to share once he returns to the WHL in early January. For now he’s enjoying being part of an event that he grew up watching with his parents.
“It was a special time telling my dad and my mom that I’d been assigned this tournament,” he says. Neither was able to make the trip east, but no one seems to mind. “My dad said, ‘I think I’d rather watch it on TV.’ That’s our tradition.”
Besides, with any luck there may be a chance to see him again in two years a little closer to home.
The 2019 World Juniors will be played in Vancouver and Victoria. When the event was last in B.C., in 2006, Vanoosten called lines during a pre-competition game between Switzerland and Sweden.
He’d love nothing more than to be involved again.
“At the very least I will take it in, but it would be unbelievable to work it.”