Ignoring insults is part of the job

Former BC hockey player finds calling as a referee

Justin Greene, 24, of Plymouth in the thick of a game as a referee. Justin Greene, 24, of Plymouth in the thick of a game as a referee. (Robert J. Meyer)
By Robert Carroll
Globe Correspondent / March 1, 2009
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The travel's brutal. The money's scarce. There are no "home" games or guarantees of job promotion. You're supervised by faceless superiors who demand you maintain complete control amid complete chaos. Oh, and don't forget those paying customers who see you only as the enemy.

"Where else do you walk into work and the first thing people do is boo you?" asks Scott Brand, the head of USA Hockey's officiating department. "How would you like to start your working shift like that?"

It is Brand's job to mold zebra-striped hopefuls into men who neither waver in opinion nor confidence. The demands are many and the rewards few, he says.

"Becoming a professional hockey referee or linesman is not easy," Brand said in a phone interview from his home in St. Paul, Minn. "There's an awful lot of windshield time, if you know what I mean. And most of that is spent alone. It's not a life for everyone."

It is proving, however, to be the perfect calling for 24-year-old Justin Greene. Two years after his playing days as a reserve defenseman ended with the Boston College men's hockey team, the Plymouth resident is rapidly climbing the minor league officiating ladder. He is joined by former local players Geno Binda and Ryan Sweeney, both of South Boston and both currently officiating in the East Coast Hockey League. NHL referee Chris Rooney is also from South Boston.

"You've got your share of [on-ice official] prospects in the Boston area," says Brand. "Justin's got a lot of things going for him, especially being a former college player. That's a huge asset."

Since earning certification with USA Hockey last summer, Greene has been keeping order in minor league rinks from El Paso to Fairbanks, Alaska. He has quickly learned that an ugly game-ending brawl in Tulsa, Okla., on a Tuesday night must be quickly forgotten because the next night promises venom-spewing fans and personal vendettas among players in Lincoln, Neb. Time between games, he says, is spent packing and unpacking suitcases, avoiding fast food, brushing up on varying league rules, and making sure the correct league patch is pinned to his not-nearly-washed-enough working jersey.

"You're probably wondering one thing," Greene said on his cellphone as he cruised Interstate 81 just south of Blountville, Tenn. "You're wondering just why I'm doing this. I don't have any great answers for you, except to say I enjoy it."

In many ways, Greene was born to officiate. As a player, he took the ice at both Boston College High School and BC in the shadow of his younger and more heralded brother, Matt, a fleet winger and an assistant captain on BC's 2007-08 NCAA Division 1 national title team.

But one area of ice hockey Greene always excelled in was rules. He knew the game. As a teen, he would often spend the car ride home after games critiquing the officiating. It wasn't long before John and Grace Greene decided they had heard enough from their son.

"I think I was 14 when Dad told me to stop complaining and do something about it," says Greene, who twice helped BC get to the national title game only to lose. "He made me go to a local seminar for hockey officials."

From that point, Greene says, he was hooked. He began officiating youth games around the Plymouth area before hooking on with USA Hockey. Within six months of passing the organization's rigorous tests (rule book memorization, skating ability, conditioning requirements), he was working minor league games in the single A Southern Professional Hockey League before graduating to the Central and United States Hockey leagues, just two steps below the National Hockey League.

"I'm getting closer to my dream," he says.

"The travel is the hardest part for Justin," John Greene says. "We used to worry about when the boys played. Now, we worry about when Justin drives at midnight after a game for six hours to get to the next city."

John recently visited Justin as he worked games in Lincoln, Neb., and Des Moines.

"There had to be about 6,000 people in the stands in Lincoln," he says. "The place is packed. All the starting players line up for the puck drop to start the game. But when the puck drops the players all go to the bench except the two respective captains. I'm not sure what's going on. And then the captains start brawling at center ice."

The following night in Iowa, John noticed a fan wearing a referee shirt in the stands. On the back of the shirt, in the place of a name, was a derogatory phrase. "I'm thinking this could get really ugly," he says.

For now, Greene continues to navigate snow-covered highways in Iowa and Indiana, Wyoming and Kansas, making $200 per game and 15 cents per mile reimbursement. If all goes according to plan, he will earn six figures in the NHL, staying in hotels and flying between games.

"I can't say if Justin will make the NHL," says Brand. "I do see him working the American Hockey League and once you're at that level anything can happen. He's a strong skater and a smart kid. He knows the game."

Greene figures by season's end in May he will have overseen close to 150 games in too many states to remember. In June and July, he will return home to Plymouth to stay with his parents before he heads back to his apartment in Chicago and his well-used 2003 Jeep Liberty.

"I put close to 50,000 miles on that Jeep in the last 18 months," Justin Greene says. "But it's worth it."

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