When Brandon Makarowski was tearing down the ice as “a little speedster out there” in his bantam hockey league in Alberta, the next collision with a player, the boards or the ice heaped more and more risk on the teenager. Earlier in his life, he’d had epilepsy, and he was warned that playing the contact sport too intensely now could bring the neurological condition back.
That season, he was forced to make a decision that could have made or broken his career.
“I sat down with my my doctor and my mom and dad and they had said that I needed to take a choice: either continue playing hockey and take a chance at getting epilepsy back, or …,” Makarowski recalled, “so I took up reffing instead.”
Fourteen seasons on from that meeting, the man who spends his days as the assistant manager at a Grand Forks grocery store and his nights skating lines for the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League and other Kootenay-Boundary minor hockey leagues is being recognized for his role as a game official who puts the same amount of effort into his officiating focus and fitness as he would, were he still a player drawing penalties.
(Knowing what he knows now about officiating, he said, “I’d definitely be a lot more mindful of what and what not to do, as far as sneaky plays – I guess penalties – go.”)
At the end of the 2019-2020 season, Makarowski was awarded the R.C. Passmore Memorial Trophy by his Kootenay-Boundary colleagues for his performance throughout the season.
“My ultimate goal was just to ref the hockey league that I had to quit, but I’ve definitely over-exceeded that goal, that’s for sure,” Makarowski said.
Reffing not only offered his younger self an opportunity to still skate with peers, despite the epilepsy, but it also offered Makarowski a chance to deepen his appreciation of the game he grew up loving.
“It really opens up your eyes to the game of hockey, and what the game really entails,” he said. “There’s lots of times where players and coaches don’t understand, but being a referee, you live and breathe it, and you have to enforce it. Sometimes it’s not the easiest job, but you learn and you work through it, right?”
Officiating has also brought him to recognize some slip-ups in his own playing career.
“I remember one time, I actually lipped off a referee,” he recalled. Makarowski says that the point of contention was a disallowed goal due to a crease violation – a tough call to make as skates jostle for real estate in front of the blue paint.
“I said some stuff that, really, if I could go back and apologize to him, I probably would – now that I’ve lived it and breathed it for many years.”
But with roles reversed, Makarowski can appreciate the poise it took from the referee to deal with his outrage.
“Having a good, strong communication with the players and coaches on the ice is a very valuable aspect to have for reffing,” he said, reflecting on what allows a trio of striped shirts to keep bench-loads of competitive young adults in check.
“Remain calm and be as polite as possible, and just talk with the players out there,” Makarowski said. “As a referee, you have to have good communication skills. If you don’t have communication, things can go sideways.”
On its surface, there’s not much beyond striped shirts to really separate the mentality of a referee from that of a player. Both, beyond recreation levels at least, carry a determined mindset. Both mull plays when they head to the dressing room at intermission and, both have good games and less-good games, and both can tend to talk with the classic dressing room hockeyisms so typical of between-period interviews on Hockey Night in Canada.
“I think the biggest thing is just to keep your head up,” Makarowski said about moving from one call, one game to the next. “I know some games can be a lot tougher than others. Some games will be better than others, some games will be phenomenal. You’ve just got to keep your head up and keep skating.”
Like a player too, Makarowski’s off-season goal is fitness – to get faster and stronger to keep up with the rested players flying off the bench.
“Being as physically fit as possible for linesmen or for a referee is key,” he said. “There is no break for the referees.”
Reflecting on his award-winning season, Makarowski says he’s most proud of his sheer output, in the number of games he was able to officiate. Unlike a player, who may have that break-away stretch pass, windmill glove save or game-saving diving poke check to reflect on as their season’s highlight, the official can’t point to one time he threw his arm in the air (or held it down, for that matter).
“I can’t really pin it down to a play, but there was lots of fun and exciting games that have taken place this season that really combined into another great season,” Makarowski said.
“Every game’s enjoyable for me because I’m out there doing what I love.”