Steve Poapst will be back on the ice at the United Center on Sunday, March 19, but with a whole new look and role.
The former left-handed shooting defenseman who played more then 300 games in the NHL, including parts of four seasons for the Chicago Blackhawks, will be one of the four on-ice officials for the Illinois High School Hockey State Championship Game. Poapst will be a linesman for the Red Division battle between No. 1-ranked New Trier Green and No. 3 York.
“It’s going to be fun, interesting to go back on the United Center ice – from a different side. I’ve worn a Blackhawks jersey and now am wearing a referee jersey at the United Center.
I’m excited,” said Poapst, 54, in his second season officiating games for IHOA. His only other officiating experience was two seasons as a teenager in his native Canada.
Officiating has been his “secret addiction,” he said.
Poapst is IHOA’s second former NHL player to transition to officiating, following Mike Rucinski, who played one game for the Blackhawks during the 1988-89 season and later officiated and coached locally.
“Steve is a student of the game, which translates well to him being an official. He is firm, yet fair as an official,” said IHOA referee-in-chief Brad Baumruck.
Poapst played parts of seven seasons in the NHL for the Washington Capitals, Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues. He then moved into coaching, with time as the head coach for the Chicago Steel in the USHL and assistant coach for the Rockford IceHogs in the AHL.
He is now the Director of Hockey Operations and Player Development for the Chicago Hawks Hockey Club and head coach for its 16U team.
“I knew last season that there was a lack of officials and when I officiated as a kid before I played junior hockey, it was something that I liked doing. I had fun officiating (years ago),” said Poapst, who returned to officiating last season out of necessity – and returned this season more for the fun.
“I kept hearing (last season) that we don’t have refs, or don’t have quality refs. I got certified last season around Thanksgiving so I could help; that was the main reason (I registered).
With the flood of local games annually around Thanksgiving, and his club off during that 2021 time-period, Poapst skated right into the fire. He worked 10 games of varying levels, “to see what I liked doing and what I didn’t like doing,” he said. “I know I can skate, so that’s a plus. I also have a good feel for the game, what is and what is not a penalty. I just wasn’t sure if I knew the rules well enough.”
Poapst was quick to learn, er, re-learn his way around the ice in a black and white striped uniform. He learned of blind spots on the ice as an official, areas where you can’t see the puck too well, such as when he is blocked by players and/or net – and he quickly adjusted his positioning to see better.
“Getting to referee all levels has been fun. Getting to see a lot of people who I coached with and against over the years, and I am now on a different side as the official, that too has been fun,” Poapst said. “There were some elements of officiating that took a bit to get comfortable with, such as, positioning – where to be, where not to be. And there always are some nerves (when officiating).
“It took me to the mid-point of this season to know where to stand to be out of the play.”
To help his officiating, Poapst watched a lot of Blackhawks games. More so, he watched the NHL officials, to learn from them. He also got a lot of insight and aide from many IHOA veterans, such as Bill Fehrman, Dave Zednik, Steve Rickard and Brad Baumruck.
“(When) unique situations come up, I want to make sure I make the right call and (know) what the rule is,” Poapst said. “Officials have to know the rules. It doesn’t matter what level you’re officiating, you have to know the rules.”
Poapst officiated more games this season than last, primarily because he wanted to, not because he had to.
He truly enjoys officiating and is always looking to improve.
“When things get heated (during a game), I know why it gets heated, and usually when it’s going to get heated. That’s where and when talking to the players and coaches – managing the game – is important,” Poapst said. “Reffing and controlling a game, you’re always learning and you always have to be improving. Positioning can always be improved, too.”
Poapst worked numerous games this season, particularly at the high school level, with players on either or both teams who formerly skated for the Chicago Hawks. They were quick to say, “Hey, Coach Poapst.” Poapst replied, “I’m the referee today,” not Coach.
At times too, no one knows Referee Poapst and his solid skating past.
“My goal is to give the best effort and best experience for the kids,” he said.
Poapst has had many memorable moments officiating over the past two seasons, such as a bantam major AAA game when a team’s coaches, well, didn’t agree with Poapst’s calls, including him waving off a goal. Between periods, the assistant coach told Poapst that their head coach was upset because he had 15-years of NHL playing experience.
Poapst didn’t reply.
Instead, fellow official Rickard after the game casually mentioned to the assistant, “Before you say something like that again, (your coach) is not the only one in this rink with that much NHL experience.”
“That was an interesting story,” Poapst said, laughing. “I don’t let people bother me; I just skate and do my job.
“Having played at the highest level, I have a feel for the game, which helps as an official – and it gives instant respect.”
Poapst said he plans to continue officiating this spring and against next season, even if most of his assignments come last-minute due to his coaching chores.
“If I can inspire people to start officiating, it will help. That’d be a positive,” he said.