Jesse Burns: The Hockey Official
Many kids dream of playing hockey at the elite level in sports, and Jesse Burns shared that ambition. Yet he did so with a difference: he wanted to be the one who officiated the games, and that's exactly what he has been doing for seven years.
Burns, 24, of Westport, Connecticut, has been making calls on the ice since he turned 12. He has refereed more than 2,000 games at all levels of competition other than the National Hockey League. Midget hockey? Called games. NCAA Division I. Yep. Division II. Same. Division III? You get the picture.
“I remember I was walking into my first game as an official and I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face,” Burns said.
In Burns’s sophomore year of college, he was recruited to work women’s hockey for Hockey East, a Division I conference.
“That was my first big dream come true,” Burns said.
Burns describes officiating hockey using a certain analogy.
“I always say it’s like business and hockey together,” Burns said. “You’re out there skating and keeping up with the play and calling the game and seeing everything, but you’re also managing personalities.”
Before worrying about his on-ice performance, Burns wants to create a good first impression while remaining professional at all times off the ice.
“You’re communicating everything: your body language, the way you dress, the way you walk into the rink,” Burns said. “The way you have a coffee stain on your shirt communicates everything, so you’re always portraying something to everyone.”
Burns emphasizes two key tasks he routinely practices for his pregame preparation.
“I think the biggest thing for me is getting into the right mental state,” Burns said. “I’m also huge on diet. I don’t like to eat a lot of gluten or dairy, so I try to stay away from those things on game day because it worsens my mental clarity and aerobic endurance.”
There are so many things Burns enjoys about officiating hockey, but working games that are fast-paced and match his competition level are his favorite.
“When you’re challenged and the level of play meets your level of expertise and you’re in that flow state where you’re completely giving yourself to the game, that’s the best,” Burns said.
Burns, however, won't take just any job. For example, he won't do beer league or similar low-quality games where players and coaches are disrespectful toward the sport.
“The lesser down in hockey you go, the more yelling, the more screaming, the more interruptions, the more fights, the more chirping and scrums that are completely pointless,” Burns said.
In the sport of hockey, there are two different officiating positions: linesmen and referees. Burns can explain the distinction between the role of a linesman and referee with ease, reducing it to a simple binary equation.
“It’s lines and it’s black and white, and it’s offside or not, and it’s icing or not, and it’s breaking up fights and it’s being in position, so it’s very linear,” Burns said in reference to the linesman’s duties. “Whereas refereeing is much more about personalities, watching a play and maybe you saw it but you don’t want to call it, so there’s a lot more finesse to it.”
Casual fans or even the most rapid fans might not think of it, but even referees have memorable moments on the ice. Burns, for example, fondly recalls "the best game of his life," one filled with tension.
“It was nuts the whole game. We were on the brink of massive eruption,” Burns said. “At any moment, they could’ve brawled with each other.”
Burns positively reflects on this moment because of the extensive preparation and hard work he put forth to be ready for that adrenaline rush.
“Just the high of being on the ice in a game like that and knowing that the job you’re doing is directly impacting that game was amazing,” Burns said.
On the flip side, one of Burns’s most forgettable moments in a zebra-striped uniform transpired during another high-stakes game. According to Burns, an attacker scored a controversial goal off a rebound while clipping the goalie’s leg in the process.
“He [the attacker] didn’t run him [the goalie] over, but he took him out enough to where the goalie couldn’t effectively play the puck,” Burns said.
That mattered not only because of the game’s magnitude, but also because if Burns ruled that there was goaltender interference on the play, the goal would’ve been disallowed.
“In my gut, that was not a goal,” Burns said. “But, that would’ve been an incredibly bold call to make at the moment. I was just kind of afraid of making a mistake.”
Burns confessed that the missed call drained the color from his face as he left the ice.
“It’s one thing if you don’t know,” Burns said. “But if you know and you don’t call it, that’s something else.”
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic beginning in March 2020, Burns hadn’t taken a break away from the ice in many years.
“My body and mind were taking a toll and I wasn’t seeing the game the same way,” Burns said.
Nevertheless, Burns took advantage of a four-to-six month break when hockey rinks closed to contain the virus.
“It was really nice because I enjoy the game so much more now and I don’t have a crappy attitude anymore,” Burns said. “I can see the game with a much clearer lens.”
Burns has had plenty of games to officiate recently, and he said he’s been refereeing now more than ever because “Connecticut is the hot bed of COVID hockey" because of the state's low infection rate and strict rink protocols.
“There’s midget hockey, junior hockey, soon-to-be college hockey and youth hockey going on because everyone’s trying to get back on the ice and get back up to speed,” Burns said.
Burns maintains a certain focus when officiating during these uncertain times.
“I’m there to call my game, but also deal with everything responsibly,” Burns said. “It’s as safe as it’s going to be. I’m not a fan of shutting everything down.”
Burns said that the leagues, conferences and rinks are taking the proper health precautions. These include: temperature checks upon entry, wearing a mask, no showering in the rinks’ locker rooms, only two people allowed per hotel room and no more than two people allowed per car.
Burns thinks that hockey isn’t going to be any safer despite these protocols in effect. He also thinks that if the coronavirus is going to be spread, it would transmit in the locker rooms as opposed to on the ice.
“Whether or not you body check someone, I don’t think your germs are going to fly off their shoulder pads and into someone’s nose any faster than when your buddy is climbing on your teammates’ shoulders in the locker room,” Burns said.
Burns also said he isn’t worried about traveling to other states to referee games.
“I’ll do what I need to do to be responsible out here, but I also have a life to live and a job to do,” Burns said.
Ultimately, Burns has high aspirations to take his hockey officiating career to the professional level someday.
“I’ve pursued this dream of being an NHL [National Hockey League] referee for eight to nine years now,” Burns said. “I’ve given my heart and soul to it. I’ve pushed my body and mind to its limits. I’ve even traveled to places in the country you wouldn’t go to otherwise.”