Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League

Saskatchewan’s Finest: Odgers embracing new role with open arms

(Photo credit to Nick Pettigrew)

(Article written by Jamie Neugebauer)

The irony was not at all lost on retired 850-plus game National Hockey League veteran Jeff Odgers.

His son Dakota thought he had finished refereeing a game on Oct. 11, 2023, at which Jeff was a spectator, until a little extra-curricular activity ensued after the final buzzer. Players started pushing and shoving, and it fell to Dakota, the former ball-of-energy and occasional on-ice scrapper, to pull the ‘combatants’ apart.

“I had a bit of a giggle,” says Jeff.

“He was going exactly through what he put how many officials through. At the end of the game, the officials just want to get out of there, then guys have other ideas. (Watching him referee his first junior games) was awesome. I was just as proud of him for that as I was for his first (Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League or Western Hockey League) games. It was a little nerve-wracking, but I had full confidence he could handle any situation.”

The younger Odgers, 27, is in his first season as an SJHL referee. As a player, he was a called-up member of the 2013 league champion Yorkton Terriers, played in 248 WHL games with Swift Current, Vancouver, and Moose Jaw, and then returned to the Terriers mid-way through his final junior campaign in 2016-17.

Four years as a student-athlete at Carleton University in Ottawa followed, wherein he earned his Environmental Studies degree, as well as 93 games for the Ontario University Athletic’s Ravens, and upon completion of his time out east, his hunger to stay in the game remained as strong as ever.

Enter officiating.

While playing for his local Senior team the Rocanville Tigers (alongside his father), he was approached by the area’s referee-in-chief Gary Gawryliuk, with whom he had a longstanding relationship.

“It was actually after a game of the finals,” Odgers says.

“Gary pulled me aside and kind of asked me if I’d ever be interested in doing the officiating. It was something I had thought about but hadn’t really put too much thought into it. I ended up having a bit of a transition there with work that allowed me to have a bit more free time so I phoned Gary, I think it was about May or June of 2022, and I said, ‘Yeah, I think I’ll give her a try this year, Gar!’”

A season refereeing local minor hockey led the quick-learning Odgers to an NHL officiating camp in Buffalo, and a WHL camp in Calgary this past August, and then to his current gigs in the SJHL and WHL.

That he has embraced and excelled at the challenge of transitioning from a player to a referee at such high levels of hockey so well is not a surprise to his father.

“The one thing about Dakota is that when he puts his mind to something, he’s all in,” says Jeff.

“I think you have to be a little thick-skinned, and determined to have a little bit of confidence in yourself when maybe there are 3 or 4000 people in the arena that are going to disagree with the call you made, to have the confidence to believe in what you’ve done, to understand that you have made the right call in your mind. On the other side, you’re not going to be right all the time. You must understand that just like a player you aren’t always going to have your best night, and you can’t dwell on it, you have to put it behind you, so you’re going to do your best and move on. Those are all qualities that Dakota has, that are going to make him a good official: a guy who doesn’t always think he’s right, someone who is very open to other people’s suggestions. When a coach has brought stuff up, he’ll actually think about it. He does not think he’s always right, he’s open to others’ ideas.”

The five-generation Odgers family farm is part of the Rural Municipality of Spy Hill, SK off Highway 8 not far from the Manitoba border and just east of the town of Esterhazy. Dakota has spent his whole life, alongside big brother John – currently a strength coach with the Los Angeles Kings – returning to duty on the farm when hockey and work allowed.

On top of his full-time job as the Northeast District Manager of the Saskatchewan Association of Watersheds, as well as keeping the current generation of SJHLers in line, he is back grinding away with Jeff and the family in Spy Hill.

The lessons he took, and continues to take, from the family business are clearly carried with him whenever he dons the blue and white stripes. One of those is what he should do when an angry coach has a few choice words after a call he has made.

“I always tell everyone my dad’s been training me for this moment because I’ve had to move cattle with him for the last 15 years,” laughs Dakota.

“So, there’s been a fair amount of words said back (to an angry cow or two). When my dad was in the NHL we came home to the farm every summer but when it came to farming, just like hockey, I was pretty passionate about it and really enjoyed what I was doing (for the most part), so that’s how I look at it.”

“I think on a mixed farm, there is a lot of manual, tedious labour,” adds Jeff, “it’s not always the most fun of jobs but Dakota has come back, taken a real passion and interest in it.

“We have three generations working together on this farm, which is something I grew up with myself. I’m glad he got to experience that, just the work ethic, the determination you have to have to have to work on the farm, and for me, it has been awesome. There is enough work for five people on the farm but usually, there are only one or two of them. I know he’s carried that same work ethic whether it was farming, hockey, university, or refereeing. There is a price to pay for everything, nothing is handed to you, and I think that’s the thing he gets: he understands there is a price and he’s willing to pay it.”

Dakota mentioned that the biggest adjustment from playing has been to learn the procedures deeper in the rulebook than the average player thinks about, as well as the obvious uptick in speed and skill possessed by SJHLers when compared to the pre-teens he was responsible for a year previous.

He feels the guidance he has received in the league has been immense.

“We’re really lucky in the SJHL to have some really strong coaching from supervisors,” Odgers says.

“I’m lucky in that I’m able to pick their brains and they’re able to give me feedback all the time, so I just try and take that and implement it into my game. There is not a night that I go out there that I don’t want to try and be better, and every night I’m walking away from the rink trying to find ways to improve, trying to find ways to become a better official.

Both Dakota and his dad, who had a staggering 2,437 penalty minutes in the NHL, agree that their similar roles as enforcers or ‘grinders’ fit perfectly into the job of a referee. The sense that while they both had plenty of skill at different levels to understand the scorer, in their most recent roles they understood that, as Dakota says: “you’re constantly evaluating the energy and the state of the game.”

“You know that’s the thing I love about hockey, and one thing I never want hockey to lose, is passion,” he adds.

“I love people that are passionate about winning, passionate about succeeding. You know, that’s going to lead to some intense moments, no doubt. But it comes from an understanding on my end that passion is what drives, that desire to win. I felt that what I brought as a player was that I was willing to do anything to try to win a hockey game, so now as a referee, I understand and respect that is where people are coming from. Sometimes it comes off in different manners, but that passion, that desire to succeed is what still drives the game, and I try to remember that whenever I am refereeing.”

Dakota credits his girlfriend Sean, as well as his family, for their support as he pursues his numerous passions, which include the protection of Saskatchewan’s natural water resources as per his day job and area of study, as well as the Odgers’ Farm and the patrolling of the SJHL’s arenas.

And at his heart, to stay involved in the game he loves, is the cherry on top of a very big sundae.

“I think just more than anything you get to be around the good people that are in the rinks,” he says, “you kind of get to make those relationships again.

“I think that’s what it’s all about. It’s the people that you’re able to go through it with. And for me, that was the big draw, to be able to get back in the game of hockey. Yes, it’s a new challenge, a new way to push myself, I’m always trying to find different ways to push myself, be it physically or mentally, and this is another one of those challenges. So, it’s just been a great fit all around.”