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A Special Calling


Brad Roethlisberger was looking for a new challenge.

After decades of officiating hockey in and outside of Wisconsin, Roethlisberger was looking for something more. Sled hockey presented him with that next opportunity. In 2007, he helped develop Wisconsin’s first sled hockey team.

The genuine love and appreciation these athletes showed for the game lit the spark he sought.

Now, nearly 12 years later, Roethlisberger not only remains actively involved with coaching disabled teams, but also earned the title of USA Hockey disabled referee-in-chief.

We caught up with Roethlisberger to hear about the program, the differences in officiating disabled hockey and how to get involved.

USA Hockey: OK, to start, we have to ask: Is there any relation to Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger?

Brad Roethlisberger: (Laughs) I get that question a lot, sadly enough, no.

USA Hockey: How did you get involved with officiating disabled hockey?

Roethlisberger: I was a board member of the Wisconsin Amateur Hockey Association when JJ O’Connor (chairperson of USA Hockey’s Disabled Section) spoke at our annual meeting and challenged us to have a sled program. Being a director, I took on that challenge. As I learned more about the sport as a coach, Matt Leaf (USA Hockey director of officiating education) and I discussed officiating opportunities in sled hockey. Knowing both my involvement as a coach and experience as an official, he recommended me to work the World Sled Hockey Championship in 2008. That was the start of my transition to disabled hockey.

USA Hockey: Being the USA Hockey disabled referee-in-chief, walk me through the program.

Roethlisberger: There are six different disciplines that fall under disabled hockey, giving diverse populations the chance to play. Special hockey is for people with physical and developmental disabilities. Warrior hockey allows injured or disabled U.S. Military veterans to play, many who suffer from PTSD and play for therapeutic reasons. Sled hockey is for players who do not have the ability to skate upright. Deaf/Hard of hearing hockey allows athletes who have been diagnosed with a hearing loss to play. And, finally, standing amputee hockey gives athletes with physical impairments or amputations a chance to play the game.

(editor’s note: USA Hockey has also recently introduced blind hockey under the disabled hockey umbrella, designed for players with visual impairments.)

USA Hockey: Are there any major differences involved with officiating disabled hockey programs?

Roethlisberger: The rules are often like regular hockey. However, each discipline has slight rule variations to accommodate and ensure the safety of their players. For example, in blind hockey, the puck we use is different. It is about four times the size of a normal puck and is made of metal that has ball bearings inside. The sound the ball bearings make cues the players to where the puck is. 

In sled hockey, you have athletes sitting in a sled versus skating upright, therefore forcing officials to change their sight lines. Officiating able-bodied hockey, we are taught to keep our heads up, but with Sled Hockey you are taught to look down and have a heightened awareness of where players are always.

The thing I tell people is, it’s just a hockey game. We often hear how great it is that these athletes get out there and play, and it is, but they’re just another hockey player. Forget the fact that they have some type of cognitive learning issue, or physical ailment—they’re a hockey player and it’s just another hockey game.

USA Hockey: How does one get involved in officiating disabled hockey?

Roethlisberger: Look around, ask questions of your local supervisors and your state’s board. Start off at the state level and find out who the main contacts are and what teams are organized in your local area. Let them know you want to get involved. There’s more you can do than officiate. Go in on a practice and help work a scrimmage. It’s a growing program, and there are countless ways to get involved.