ESCANABA - Terry Saunders had dealt with it before, but this was different. As two players scrummed in the corner of the hockey rink, Saunders skated in to break it up as he had multiple times in the past.
What he didn't expect was when one player got thrown. His skate came up and hit Saunders between the fingers. Saunders skated off the ice in the middle of the second period and was stitched up in the locker room before the third period.
"The guys gave me a hard time about that one. The ref gets injured, misses a period. That was an experience," Saunders said.
AHL referee, Escanaba native and Northern?Michigan?University graduate Terry Saunders escorts a San Antonio Rampage player to the penalty box during a game on Oct. 14. (Photo courtesy of Fred Trask)
Welcome to life as an American Hockey League referee.
Fighting has long been part of hockey. For Saunders, part of his job is to protect the players. Often, that means getting involved when the gloves drop.
"From a referee standpoint, we have to be there for player safety. We try to prevent fighting, but when two grown men make a decision that they want to fight, we stand there and make sure no one gets hurt," he said. "If two individuals have consented and decided that they want to go, we're going to let them. If someone says 'I'm done' or they're getting tired, we're there. That's why we stand so close to them.
"Some of these players might be representing their country in the Olympics or their team in the playoffs. The last thing we want is for them to get hurt."
An Escanaba native and one time player for Escanaba High School, Saunders recently completed his first full season as an AHL referee.
His rise to the hockey equivalent of AAA baseball came quickly.
Saunders went to a USA Hockey district camp in Salt Lake City the spring of 2010 and quickly was invited to junior camp by USA Hockey. There, he received an offer to work in the North American Hockey League.
Scott Brand, the officiating development coordinator for USA Hockey, recalled Saunders' tryout.
"Terry showed up at our camp and he was a little on the older side. We said maybe the NHL was out of the question, but he impressed us with his skating and physical fitness. We knew he had to work the junior program and later we had him working in the AHL. It seems like things are going well. He's a great young man," Brand said.
After working just five games in the NAHL, Saunders received an email in December of 2010 from the supervisor of the AHL, recommending him to work his first game in January of 2011.
"I don't know if they knew how many games I had worked. They needed a game filled and I knew it was my opportunity to jump on it," Saunders said. "I talked to whoever I could. I was nervous. I knew it would be a much different story compared to 20-year old kids in the NAHL."
His first game was Jan. 8 - Houston Aeros at San Antonio Rampage.
"It was a televised game and I told my parents, my sister and my brother and they bought the sports package so they could watch it," Saunders said. "I had a blast. There were three fights and just to be a linesman and be in the middle of that, it was neat to be able to share it with family, my wife and my kids."
In August of 2011, Saunders received a call from the AHL offering a more permanent status in their league. The 2011-12 AHL regular season recently completed with Saunders working 20 games in the Texas region.
USA Hockey's National Officiating Camp has offered Saunders an invite to their camp this summer at the site of the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.
"The top 25 officials in the country are chosen for this week long camp," said Saunders. "I am honored to have been selected and I look forward to the opportunity. I hope to represent the USA at an international event someday."
Along with being a referee this season, Saunders is also active military and juggles both commitments while being a father and husband.
"I'm in the Army at Fort Sam and have every other weekend off. I haven't been out to Iraq or Afghanistan. It just hasn't been in the cards. I was alerted one time and they had 300 people originally assigned to deploy, but took around 150. I didn't end up getting picked. The deployment briefing was a day before my daughter was born. I was nervous, but you know that going in," Saunders said.
Saunders, his wife Ellysha and two children - 18 month old Kaelynn and 3-year-old son Brady, make their home in San Antonio, but Saunders said the Army will soon move them to Fort Riley, Kan.
Saunders said one of the greatest aspects of being an AHL ref is reuniting with players he knew from college. A graduate of Northern Michigan University, Saunders said running into former Wildcats' Mark Olver and Nathan Oystrick was a highlight.
"There was one point where Olver was injured by a hit to the head and he missed four months. I saw him in one of his first games back with the Lake Erie Monsters. I said hello to him and that I was glad to see him back on the ice. He's really fun to watch," he said.
Olver didn't stay in the AHL too much longer and finished the year with the Colorado Avalanche. Oystrick played for the Portland Pirates, an affiliate of the Phoenix Coyotes.
Saunders has not been contacted by the NHL, but said he has been supervised by league officials.
"I don't know if I'm on the NHL's radar. I would say it's a goal of mine to get there, but I don't know how realistic it is," he said. "I've been supervised twice by the NHL. As an official, you get used to being supervised, but it's a whole different experience when you're being watched by the NHL. You know they're watching the best officials in North America. It's a different feel, the things they say. You want to be spot on, you don't want to screw up when they're there."
For now, Saunders is just enjoying the ride and living the dream.
"You never know what could happen. At this point, the league is so fast, so skilled. I'm just humbled to be out there with the players and I'm excited to be a part of the game," he said. "I have a lot to learn in this league and I have to get that experience before I think of anything else."