Bobby Jo Love is a Kootenay International Junior Hockey League alumni, who is officiating in the Western Hockey League and has made the jump to working games in the American Hockey League. As a defenceman, Love made his debut in the KIJHL at 17 with the Sicamous Eagles in 2013-14 collecting six assists in 32 games. He added another assist in five playoff games. Love, now 25, also played for the 100 Mile House Wranglers and briefly with the Golden Rockets before finishing out his junior career with the Oceanside Generals in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League. Love’s final season of hockey was in 2017-18 in the B.C. Intercollegiate Hockey League with the Vancouver Island University Mariners.
The KIJHL connected with Love at the end of November to talk about his path in officiating and use his story to encourage other players, especially KIJHLers, to consider becoming an official. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
KIJHL: You have started officiating in the American Hockey League, what has that been like?
BL: It’s been crazy so far. Over the past couple of years I’ve definitely moved up the ranks at a quicker pace then some would consider, getting to the American League this year was just that next step. Going from junior to pro hockey, all the implications that come with it – bigger bodies, faster game, new rules, all that sort of stuff and to that extent there’s increased travel, going all over North America. It’s been a wild ride so far and I’m hoping to continue to find success here in the middle part of the season and carry that momentum onwards into the playoffs.
KIJHL: How many games have you worked in the AHL?
BL: It’s been nine games.
KIJHL: How do you feel that you’ve done so far in those games that you’ve worked?
BL: I personally feel like I’ve settled in right away. Working in the Western Hockey League and the BCHL helped get me up to speed. The American League is considerably faster, but these leagues are so beneficial to work for referee development. Just picking up the pace of the game, the intricacies within the game, how players interact, the professionalism. As far as my skill goes, I feel like I’ve settled in early, getting used to the travel still, it’s not driving two hours to Kelowna or four hours to Vancouver, it’s taking a flight, multiple flights to get to your destination and then a rental car to the rink.
KIJHL: Talk about the importance of an official being physically fit to work at higher levels.
BL: The game has changed so much in the past couple decades that fitness is definitely paramount. You’ve got to put yourself in the right areas to see the play and make the right calls. A term that gets used often is sightlines when you’re reffing. Putting yourself in the position to have the sightline to make the call, whether that’s moving quicker into the corner or skating harder.
KIJHL: When you got into officiating, was your goal automatically, ‘I want to reach the NHL?’
BL: I started when I was 12 years old. The first year I was able to with Hockey Canada in my hometown of Smithers, it was just a way to get extra time and make a few bucks on the weekend and ref tournaments and I never really thought I would come to this point where I’m at right now. I was hoping at that time that I would probably be in the American Hockey League or NHL as a player, but years later I realized that wasn’t a possibility. It was just to get better and a little bit of extra ice time when there was only one hockey rink in Smithers. Years later, I continued throughout my junior hockey days and officiated when I could in local associations and after that I realized there’s a very good chance I could continue on with this and make something of it. Now, it’s trying to get to the highest level and give back to the communities that give so much to me and the associations that gave me my start, not only playing, but officiating.
KIJHL: When did you get a sense that getting to that higher level, reaching the American Hockey League was a realistic possibility?
BL: It was after my last year of junior. First of all, I should say when I was a player I was always communicating with officials interested in that side of the game. My last year in Oceanside in Parksville in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League (VIJHL), and I finished the year and I wasn’t sure what to expect next and wanted to keep playing. That year I tried out for the VIU Mariners in the BCIHL and ended up making the squad and throughout that year playing in the BCIHL I was still in touch with a lot of the officials from Junior B who were also reffing the Mariners at the time. We thought it’d be funny if I tried to get in touch with their boss and maybe work a few Junior games and try to break into the system that way. I reached out to the VIJHL assignor and expressed my interest and then quickly got assigned a few games in the VIJHL as a linesman. I loved it and quickly took to the game on the officiating side. I spent that season lining Junior B and Junior A hockey when I wasn’t playing. Following that year I went to the NHL exposure combine in the summer in Buffalo, New York, where all the top leagues around North America, including the NHL are there watching you perform fitness testing, playing shinny hockey games and integrating yourself with other ex-players. Coming out of that there were some opportunities that presented themselves with Hockey Canada and the NHL after. It kind of forecasted a potential future on the officiating side.
My timeline as an official, I started out lining Junior B and Junior A while I was still playing in the BCIHL. The next year I was refereeing Junior A and lining Junior B and I made it to the Cyclone Taylor Cup as a lineman that year, which was just a tremendous opportunity. Following that summer, I got hired as a referee to the Western Hockey League and from that moment on I was only a referee. After that year, COVID-19, only working in the WHL bubble in Kamloops and Kelowna as a referee and now this past summer getting hired by the American Hockey League. It’s been a very fast progression, but it’s been so fun so far.
KIJHL: It must be the work that you’re putting in, but why do you think your progression has been so fast?
BL: There’s many theories out there, but I just think it comes down to work ethic and how bad you want it. It’s just like playing. People always ask how you get noticed and how you work up the ranks. Quite frankly it is the same as playing, we have scouts and supervisors watching every game. Going out there every night and putting your best foot forward, working your bag off, admitting mistakes, communicating well, making the right calls and showing resilience. I think that’s part of the reason why I’ve been so successful so far. I’d be wrong if I didn’t mention all the help that I’ve got along the way with many veteran guys at every level I’ve crossed paths with and supervisors again at every level, just helping me move up and be my best as well as helping me learn and continue to learn every game to get to that next level.
KIJHL: Shed some light on the tough parts of it. What it’s like to deal with coaches that are upset about a call, but especially the fans. How do you deal with that?
BL: It’s not all glamour out there and speaking from the travel side of things, there’s a lot of windshield time by yourself, and a lot of time by yourself at airports and hotels and that might not be for everybody, being away from home. That’s one tough aspect of it now is getting to the game and the fans, the scrutiny from the fans, being booed all the time and every decision that you make out there as a referee is up for interpretation. You’re not always going to get the best feedback, not only from the fans, the coaches, they’re always going to have their opinion. Being cordial with them and honest is huge. Admitting mistakes. I’m human, I’m not perfect out there, but continuing to chase excellence every night and having the humility to admit your mistakes and be honest with players and coaches and I think if you’re doing that every night, you’re going to find you’re respected a lot more out there.
KIJHL: I want to shift over to your time playing Junior hockey, especially in the KIJHL. What was that experience like for you?
BL: It was phenomenal. It was the best years of my life and taught me how to become a man and take care of myself away from home. Moving away at 17 wasn’t the easiest thing to do, contemplating whether I should stay home and graduate with my friends and carry on my last year of minor hockey, or do I try to play at a better level with bigger bodies and better players in Sicamous in the KJHL. Looking back at it, I would make that decision again 10 out of 10 times. Moving away and playing and meeting new players from all over along with the experiences and the bus trips, hotels, it kind of leaves you speechless thinking about how much fun I had and being 25-years-old now, I wish I could do everything to step back in the rink in the KJHL and go back to the locker room.
KIJHL: Talk about how your time in the league helped you develop into the player that you became, then also that experience and knowledge that you picked up also helps you as an official.
BL: You know the long bus trips in KIJHL and the grueling travel, the three game weekends, all this helped me get to that next level as a player, even in the BCIHL, which was phenomenal. Moving on to the officiating side of things, a lot of windshield time by myself and long flights and stuff, I think the KIJHL prepared me for that, and you know being on a schedule and being regimented every day, working out, practicing, playing, long weekends away. Of course, it looks a bit different now, it’s still the workouts, not so much practice, but getting into the rulebook and making sure you are studying the tape and preparing yourself for what’s to come just the same as a player. I wouldn’t be here without my time in the KIJHL and VIJHL.
All the players and individuals that I’ve talked to who were coming up in the same shoes as I was and not sure about what’s going to happen afterwards or whether they should continue with the game or hang up the skates. I think that the hardest part of officiating is getting your foot in the door and buying that jersey and going and reffing minor hockey games. Once you do that, and you find a passion for it and you realize how fun it is, it doesn’t feel like a job anymore and you’re going to get the same emotions that you got when you were playing.
KIJHL: Is there anything you would encourage players to do to know the rules better?
JL: The Hockey Canada rule book I believe is free online for anybody to view. I encourage every player to download it and pick through it. I guarantee you that if every player did that and understood the rulebook to the level that a referee does, the demeanor on the ice would be a lot different, and the compassion that players would have for the game and referees and the respect level there would change drastically.
KIJHL: Talk about that first AHL game that you worked, what was that like?
BL: That was a special, special night. I was fortunate enough to have my first one
In Abbotsford, it was Ontario Reign at Abbotsford Canucks and being from Smithers, it was accessible to get my parents a flight down and have a lot of my family there which was just beyond special for me. And a lot of individuals, buddies, ref buddies, playing buddies made it to the game and just made it that much more special. That first game, the mentality was call what you see. Skate hard, trust in your abilities, and your preparation.
KIJHL: How much confidence did you get from it knowing I can do this at this level from that game.
BL: Leading up to it, the anthems, standing at center ice and just taking it all in of course with COVID-19 right now, the capacity was only at half, but it was a sold out half capacity, and the fans were loud. Until that first puck drop, I think my knees were clapping together pretty hard and the jitters and just wanted to get going. Once that first shift took place and adjusting to the speed of the game, I realized I could do this and I can be here and I can do well here. I leaned on my preparation and everything leading up to what got me there. That first game left me speechless.
KIJHL: Is there anything else that you would like to bring up?
BL: I encourage every hockey player at any age to get a jersey and a whistle and go and try it. It’s a great opportunity to stay with the game, give back to the game and just have fun.
KIJHL: That’s great, thanks for sharing that.
BL: It’s super cool the path that I took and getting here and not a lot of people get this opportunity and I’m just trying to make the most of it.