One of the most unusual situations in college hockey wouldn’t be taking place at Lake Superior State today if it hadn’t been for a mid-summer phone call four years ago.
Jim Roque coached the Minot (N.D.) Americans of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League in the early 1990s when Mike Schmitt, now an NCHC officials supervisor, was working SJHL, WCHA and high school games.
They didn’t agree on every call, no coach and official ever do, but they got to know each other and their work ethics.
Years later, when Roque was coaching Lake Superior State from 2005-14, he turned to his old stomping grounds to fill a void after losing a top recruit.
He called the Schmitts, knowing Mike’s son Bryce had just finished his junior hockey career and had a reputation as a grinder.
“I was on the golf course when the phone rang and he offered me the chance to come play for him at Lake Superior State,” Bryce said. “I hadn’t committed to playing anywhere and had aged out of junior hockey but I still wanted to play Division I. I never visited the school before I showed up to play. It turned out to be a good decision.
Roque left the program prior to the 2014-15 season and LSSU hired Damon Whitten, but Schmitt was still named an assistant captain for his senior season. His stats aren’t staggering — 18 goals and 18 assists in 135 games — but at 6-0, 190 pounds he’s a grinder for the Lakers. Last season he shared the team’s prestigious Jim Howie Unsung Hero award with Andrew Dommett. The honor recognizes the team’s hardest working player who displays the most leadership on and off the ice.
“I’m never going to be the guy who gives a rah-rah speech,” Bryce said. “I like to lead by example.”
With Bryce playing, older brother Brandon officiating and their father Mike (right) supervising NCHC officials, the Schmitt family experience is one of a handful of father-son — let alone father-son-son — combinations to compete at the D-I level.
“I never really thought of it but it is unusual,” said Mike, who slips out of press boxes between periods of games he’s supervising so he can get quick updates on how his son is doing.
“It’s definitely unusual. It’s rare enough for a player to be good enough to be Division I. Then you look at how few officials there are — I oversee 43 in the NCHC — and there are about 230 in all the leagues. So now you’ve got to have the right age separation and be good enough to officiate or play. That’s a pretty small number when you think about it.”
Schmitt could only recollect one other occurrence – when former WCHA referee Mike Atoms was working games and his son Chris played for Wisconsin in the 1990s.
Paul Stewart, head of officiating for the ECAC, said he can’t recall ever seeing such a family dynamic.
“There’s not enough officials to go around,” Stewart said. “I oversee about 70 officials and many of them also work other leagues like Hockey East and the Atlantic Hockey Conference. There’s just not enough officials out there and that’s part of the problem. We’ve had a lot of officials who played college hockey and had dads who were officials or coaches, myself included, but I don’t recall seeing it at the same time. It’s rare.”
Brandon (above) believes his dad could still ref or do the lines if needed, however earlier this season Mike declined the opportunity after an official was injured.
“No way,” he said laughing. “I’m done.
“I retired from skating years ago when Brandon and Bryce started playing youth hockey. I wanted to be a dad and watch them play. I’ve got to see a few of Brandon’s games live. That bell they toll after wins at Lake Superior State is just an awesome experience.
“I loved working the games but it takes its toll on the family. Living in Minot I had to drive 200 miles one way for WCHA games in Grand Forks (N.D.) or to catch flights to Minneapolis and then go elsewhere. That was tough.
“But once you start officiating it’s tough to turn off. I used to stand to the side of the parents and try to keep my mouth shut when they were yelling at the refs. You know why they made the call. You just watch the game differently.”
Bryce said his dad rarely, if ever, gives him playing advice. Brandon, however, will hear from him on a regular basis because most games he’s officiating his dad is watching from the box above.
“He’ll say stuff like you should move over here or there to get a better angle. He’s not too bad.”
Bryce sees things differently.
“Sometimes officials will come up before games and ask if my dad is here because they may want to see him,” he said. “And sometimes, guys will come up and ask what my dad thought of a call or play. They’re looking for a different perspective.
“Sometimes, they’ll ask me because they think I must know a ref’s view because of my family. I don’t at all. That’s one job I wouldn’t want. They both like confrontation with coaches and players more than me.”