BUFFALO — Corey Syvret still gets goosebumps thinking about his NHL debut. The lights in the arena were low, the music was pumping, adrenaline flowing as he took the ice for a moment he had long imagined.
Except he wasn’t on the ice to play. He was there to officiate.
“It might have been different than the way I dreamed it growing up but at the end of the day, to wear that shield on your chest … it was probably the highlight of my life, to be honest,” Syvret said. “It was very special, just having an opportunity to be on the ice with guys of that caliber and that talent, and to be on that stage. That was a very humbling experience, that’s for sure.”
He made his NHL officiating debut April 4, 2018, serving as referee in a game between the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators at KeyBank Center in Buffalo. The debut came nearly eight months after Syvret participated in his first NHL Exposure Combine across the street at Harbor Center. The event, which can be best described as a scouting combine for prospective officials, helped him earn a contract in the NHL officiating system, which started him off in the minor leagues.
This year, he was at the combine to give back. After two years as a participant, the 30-year-old returned for a third time, but was elevated into the role of mentor along with five other officials from the American Hockey League. Now in its sixth year, the combine featured 96 participants who were invited from the 430 applications received.
“It was tremendous, it was a lot of fun,” he said of his new role. “Any time you have an opportunity that you can give back and help share your experience or any knowledge that you have, it’s nice to be in that position.
“It’s a very rewarding feeling as well, when you can give feedback to the kids instantly and then within 24 hours you get to work with the same kid on the ice and you see the changes that they’re making, you see that they’re listening and they’re trying what you’re telling them.”
Corey Syvret in his NHL officiating debut April 4, 2018, in a game between the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators at KeyBank Center in Buffalo
Syvret was selected by the Florida Panthers in the sixth round (No. 181) in the 2007 NHL Draft, but never reached the NHL. When the defenseman, who played 292 games in the ECHL and 18 in the American Hockey League, was 25 he started thinking about life after hockey.
He wanted to play as long as he could, but the thought of what’s next lingered in the back of his mind after winning a Kelly Cup with Alaska of the ECHL in 2014 through the final years of his playing career.
The thought of officiating was planted courtesy of NHL linesman Mark Shewchyk, a family friend who lives in Syvret’s hometown of Millgrove, Ontario. No matter where or when he ran into Shewchyk, the veteran official would ask him about his season and throw it out there that he thought Syvret had what it takes to don the stripes.
“The older I got, I started to mature and really started to look at it a little bit more thoroughly and in-depth, and started to take things a little more seriously,” he said. “I thought this could be a great career path for me. Hockey’s a passion of my family’s, of mine.”
Syvret turned to Shewchyk for insight on how to potentially get started, which eventually led him to applying to participate in the combine.
With his playing days winding down and a new career moving to the forefront of his mind, Syvret began watching the game with a different eye to familiarize himself with everything the job of an official entails.
That included reading the rulebook.
“Some of that stuff was like, ‘Oh, wow, I didn’t know that was wrong. I don’t know how many times I did that.’ That was probably the biggest adjustment, just coming from being a player and trying to break or bend the rules, see what you can get away with, to now having to enforce them and understand what they are and to be able to react to them in a split second.”
While it took some adjustment early, Syvret has found his way with the help of his colleagues in the NHL Officiating Department.
“I don’t know if I could technically pinpoint to one person but just our whole staff in general, everyone has been so encouraging and wanting to help,” Syvret said. “Then you have our bosses, whether it’s Stephen Walkom or [Director of Scouting and Development] Al Kimmel, our supervisors in the minor leagues and the NHL; everyone’s done such a tremendous job with all of us, not just me.
“We want to mentor the younger guys and try to give them experience and feedback and little things to work on. That’s what our officiating managers do with us throughout the season and I feel like that’s been very impactful on my development and my progress so far. Outside of that, it’s just our team in general. We want to be the best team on the ice, and we want to push each other.”