Morrison’s career has spanned more than two decades working in the League
It wasn’t a difficult decision for Johnathan Morrison to become a hockey official because it was in his blood. Both his uncle and father had worn the stripes, and when the USHL came to his hometown of Mason City, Iowa with the beginning of the North Iowa Huskies in the fall of 1983, Morrison got an up close and personal look at the profession watching his father call the games.
Unlike a lot of youngsters looking to track down a puck or get “high fives” from players, Morrison focused most of his attention on the three guys on the ice holding whistles.
“I would always be that kid going into the locker room between periods, hanging out, and getting to know the officials. That’s how I got started,” said Morrison.
From there, he would eventually get his own whistle and started working squirt and pee wee games until his own high school playing career put that on hold for a few seasons. Morrison stayed close to home after high school, attending college in Mason City, and began to work more games as an official. He got a big opportunity at just 19 years of age when he was called upon to work his first USHL game on February 26th, 1993. The linesman instantly developed a love affair with the profession and the League, and a career was born.
Morrison grew up around the USHL and now had better than a front row seat to watch some of the world’s best hockey talent do some growing of their own. Not only was he working in the USHL, but also calling games in the NCAA and in professional hockey circuits as high as the American Hockey League (AHL). He saw a lot of familiar faces making their way up the hockey ranks.
“Hands down that has been my favorite part – seeing players at the junior level, then college, and then in the pros,” said Morrison. “A player like David Backes was skating for the Lincoln Stars during several games that I officiated, and then I work games while he was the captain at Minnesota State University, Mankato. I was working one of his first few AHL games and he just went out and flourished. It was so much fun to see him at all those levels and to watch the progression was such a thrill.”
It hasn’t been only players that Morrison has seen climb the ranks, as he has watched many of his officiating brethren start in the USHL and work all the way up to the NHL. He has worked on the same crews as Chris Rooney, Ian Walsh, and Brian Mach, all of whom signed NHL contracts as officials following their time in the USHL.
Another future NHL official was his roommate during the 1998-99 season. Morrison and Brian Pochmara moved in together on a Tuesday and then worked their first game on the same crew that following Friday.
“The first time I saw Pochmara skate, I said this guy is going to get hired by the NHL,” recalled Morrison. “He had exactly what it took and he saw everything on the ice. He had that command of the game and whatever he called, the coaches, players, and fans accepted it.”
Morrison’s prophecy didn’t take long to be realized as only a couple seasons later, Pochmara was hired by the NHL and has stuck ever since. He is now working some of the biggest hockey games in the world, including a Game 6 and a Game 7 in the first round of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of the last two seasons.
While he has watched some of elite players and officials, Morrison never lost sight of honing his own skills as an official and dedicated countless hours to becoming one of the best. His hard work has paid off and earned him some of the biggest assignments in the USHL, including Clark Cup Final contests and a trio of All-Star Games. Of the more than 1,000 games he has worked in the League, he fondly recalls Game 5 of the 2002 Clark Cup Final that saw defenseman Ryan Geris score the winner in overtime to give the Sioux City Musketeers a championship victory over the Omaha Lancers. It would also be the final USHL game played in the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum in Omaha. Morrison would be on the crew when another building hosted its last USHL game as the Musketeers defeated the Sioux Falls Stampede at the Sioux City Auditorium on December 13th, 2003. The game featured future NHL players Chris Butler (Calgary Flames), Tim Kennedy (Phoenix Coyotes), and Ben Holmstrom (Philadelphia Flyers).
The USHL has achieved massive growth over the past decade which has included a number of new arenas during that time. But when Morrison decided to work his final USHL game, he chose one of the classics as he officiated the February 21st game between the Chicago Steel and Des Moines Buccaneers at Buccaneer Arena.
“It is the last rink that is still around from when I started in the USHL,” said Morrison, “and it is still my favorite.”
Morrison has moved up the officiating ladder, working games in the AHL and drawn several assignments for international competition. He was on the crew for the gold medal game of the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championship between Canada and Russia, joining fellow USHL officiating graduate Keith Kaval. Morrison has also called the lines in Sweden and Finland for IIHF Men’s World Championship games in 2012 and 2013.
But no matter what parts of the globe his officiating career took him, Morrison always accepted multiple game assignments throughout the season in the USHL. Most officials spend a few seasons developing their skills in the League before moving on to other levels, but his reasons for returning were quite simple, “It was always home to me and has always been my favorite league.”
It wasn’t just the quality of talent from a player standpoint, but Morrison relished the opportunity to work with young officiating talent and guys that were developing their craft to make the rise to collegiate, professional, and international levels of hockey. As he puts it, no other league in the world provides a training ground similar to the USHL.
That training extends off the ice and Morrison has been instrumental over the last several seasons to help the League and its officials continue their development. His schooling and work experience in e-commerce and logistics have been put to use as he has assisted in scheduling, managing expenses, and developing training videos for officials. Like the players, officials are learning to balance their time on and off the ice, and Morrison has made significant contributions to help make life easier for younger officials.
“The life of an official simply put – it’s a grind,” said Morrison. “I used to think three games in three nights was crazy, but then it got really intense when sometimes you are working seven games in nine nights with thousands of miles in between riding in a car. But these guys are just like the players, and they want to be the best and be in the biggest games. An official is thinking about the next season as soon one ends and figuring out how to improve and put themselves in a better position.”
Morrison has also learned to accept the pressure and criticism that comes along with the toughest officiating role in all of sports. It comes with the territory, but despite the judgment of self-appointed officials in the stands or the emotions of players and coaches that run high during games, he has learned to focus on the job and making proper decisions that an official only has a split-second to make multiple times per night.
“You have to be mentally prepared, react instantly, and have to be right,” said Morrison. “There is so much hard work, time, and energy that so many people have put into that particular game, and there is always a lot on the line – a win, a player’s safety, or a championship.
“It is a role like no other. I have had jobs where big decisions come and I get to sit back, think about it, and weigh the pros and cons. You don’t get that in officiating and that can be difficult to handle. Moments in a game are a snapshot and you get a fraction of a second to make that decision.”
Morrison may be walking away from the USHL, but his days of officiating are far from over. He will continue to work games in college hockey, the AHL, and in sled hockey. Living in St. Paul, Minnesota, the 39-year-old is looking to spend less time on the road after more than 20 years of racking up the miles in between rinks throughout the United States. His focus has also changed since getting married, but hockey officiating continues to be a family affair as his wife is also a referee at the collegiate and international level.
“On the weekends that I am not working college or AHL games, instead of taking USHL assignments, I am going to get to all those hobbies that I have never had time for, and support my wife and her goals,” said Morrison.
One of his wife’s main goals is to earn an opportunity to work women’s games at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. For Morrison himself, an Olympic moment is coming up this March as he will be a sled hockey referee for the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia. It’s his third Paralympic Games assignment after also working in Torino, Italy in 2006 and Vancouver, Canada in 2010.
The USHL has always been home for Morrison and will remain close to his heart, but after more than two decades in the League, he moves on to the next chapters in his life. Although he will never blow a whistle in Lincoln, Omaha, or Green Bay ever again, his dedication and contributions to the USHL leave a lasting impact.
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 12th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2013-14. A record 32 players were chosen in the 2013 NHL Draft and more than 300 players on team rosters last season have committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent. For more information, visit us on the web at www.USHL.com or visit the League’s social media platforms, including Facebook (www.facebook.com/ushlhockey), twitter (www.twitter.com/ushl), and YouTube (www.youtube.com/ushlinteractive). Fans can also watch USHL action all season long, live or on-demand via FASTHockey (ushl.fasthockey.com).
It’s not just hockey. It’s the USHL.
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