Curtis Marouelli, 26, of Edmonton, skates during a drill at the ECHL referee camp last month at the Huntington Center.
The Blade/Andy Morrison
ECHL referees take heaps of verbal abuse from all sides, absorbing hurls of insults and ridicule from players, coaches, and fans alike.
Such an occupation might seem like a thankless job with not much upside. Unless you ask Curtis Marouelli, a young emerging ref who is entering his third year in the league.
"For us, just being a part of the game is fun," Marouelli said. "We are all competitors just like when we played hockey. I just like to be on the ice and having a big responsibility."
Marouelli was in Toledo at the Huntington Center last month along with 23 other officials for the ECHL's referee training camp.
Marouelli said the goal for all linesmen and referees is to keep advancing up through the minors and eventually to the NHL.
"You always want to progress," said Marouelli, a 26-year-old from Edmonton. "You're never satisfied at staying at one level."
Marouelli said learning how to handle the verbal abuse is part of the development.
"Getting yelled at comes with the territory," he said. "You're going to get yelled at one way or another. It's not a job for everyone."
To Marouelli some aspects are similar to that of a police officer.
"It's a thankless job a lot of the time," he said. "Just like being a cop, not everyone can go out there and walk the beat and keep everyone happy."
Joe Ernst, the ECHL's director of officiating, said the organization's goal also is to develop refs to get to the next level.
"They're no different than the players," he said. "That is what all these guy are striving for, to make it to the National Hockey League. That's the carrot. Although there are less opportunities as officials because of the numbers."
He said two officials, Matt MacPherson and Graham Skilliter, who were working for the ECHL last season have made the jump to the NHL this year.
Walleye coach Nick Vitucci said he thinks most of the young refs do a good job. He compared the officials to his players that also are trying to get to the next level.
"The really good ones remain unseen and unnoticed," Vitucci said.
Marouelli said one important distinction officials must make is determining whether coaches and players are being disrespectful or using verbal abuse as an inspirational tactic.
"They are making their livelihoods at the professional level," he said. "You have to understand whether they are making it personal or trying to ignite their team."
He said the bottom line is that refs must learn to block it out.
"You have to get yelled at to learn how much you can take and deal with," he said.
Marouelli also said it is important for officials to own up to mistakes if they make them.
"You learn as you go whether it's for you or not," he said. "If at any point it affects your job, you get out of it."
Ernst said a first-year referee in the ECHL this year will make $225 per game, while a first-year linesman will make $150 per game.
"Each year that they are in the league they get a little bit of a raise," he said. "They make more in the playoffs, too."
The league also pays for mileage, hotels, airfare, and per diems on the road. The ECHL also pays the rent for the officials' apartments during the season.
Marouelli said he considers officiating his full-time occupation. He said he had worked as an apprentice electrician in Edmonton. He then got the opportunity to work in the United States at junior hockey games.
He travels to ECHL arenas from October into April, then has to find work in the summer.
"I always work. I've worked construction," he said. "I work a regular person's job. You have to."
He said one of the biggest draws of the job is the comradeship with his fellow officials.
"Hanging out with the guys is just like being on a team again," he said. "You have that camaraderie. The fraternity of officials is a huge deal for us. If you don't like the people you work with, you're not going to like your job."
Ernst was an off-ice official for 16 years. He was a referee in the ECHL for most of that time and is in his 21st year with the league.
Ernst said he wanted to play the sport professionally but did not have the physical stature.
"I played growing up. I got into officiating because I was too small to play," Ernst said. "Officiating was the way I could stay involved in the game. I have a love of the sport."
Ernst's experiences in Toledo goes back to the old Sports Arena, which Ernst called the "crazy days."
"We loved the old Sports Arena because of the atmosphere and the fans made it that way," Ernst said. "You got to interact with people. They knew you, and you knew them. They'd act [tough] during the game, but they'd be the first to ask where you wanted to meet for a beer after the game."
Ernst said the Huntington Center is "unbelievable" and is the reason the ECHL holds its officials' training camp in Toledo.
Marouelli said he enjoys coming to Toledo and working at the Huntington Center.
"It's always fun coming here because the building is always full," Marouelli said. "They get great support. It's good to see that. You want hockey to thrive. But in some buildings your lucky to get 2,000 fans there. You wish you could take peoples' attitudes here and bring it to other hockey markets."
Marouelli was at the center of a pivotal call late last season that went against the Walleye.
In a game on March 27 against Cincinnati, Toledo was fighting for a playoff spot when Evan Rankin looked as though he had tied it at 4 with 56 seconds left. Marouelli lost sight of the puck and blew the whistle, disallowing the goal. The Walleye failed to make the playoffs.
Marouelli admitted he could have had more patience before blowing the whistle. He said such plays happen many times in every game.
"It was a scramble around the net and I had lost sight of the puck," he said. "I had made the decision to kill the play. Unfortunately the puck comes loose after.
"It was an important situation, a crucial part in the season. As a ref, I have to stick to my decision as tough as that may be. I can't change the call. It was a big learning experience."
Curtis' uncle, Dan Marouelli, is one of the most respected and well known officials in the NHL, when he was on the job from 1984 to 2010.
"He did it for a lot of years, and he had a very good reputation," Marouelli said. "It's kind of a household name in officiating."
He said sharing the name helps spark scouts' interests in him.
"But it also has a little bit of pressure because you're stepping into those shoes," he said. "Having an uncle who did it kind of sparked some interest. But at the end of the day, I'm my own person."
Marouelli said he first began refereeing when he was 13. He started out officiating young players in mite and squirt games.
"It beat flipping burgers for a first job," he said.
He said it might surprise people that he found it more difficult refereeing at youth games because of the obnoxious parents of the young players.
"It's intimidating seeing what some of these parents say," he said. "A lot of my friends didn't want to get up at 6 in the morning and make $20 a game and get yelled at by some 30 year old."
Marouelli said coaching the sport was never something he wished to pursue after playing major midget hockey. So he turned to officiating.
"Not being the biggest guy in the world, it kind of kept things in perspective," he said.
Marouelli said the travel and time away from family makes it a difficult occupation, but he said there is nothing else he would rather do.
"It is neat to see all the different regions," he said. "You see a lot of really nice people. You meet a lot of people you don't forget. We all share the same passion of loving hockey. That's the common denominator. That's a big perk of the job."