When people ask Shandor Alphonso what number he wears on the back and sleeves of his black-and-white-striped National Hockey League linesman sweater, he smiles and assures them that “you won’t have any trouble finding me” on the ice.
Alphonso and Jay Sharrers are easily recognizable because they are the only black on-ice officials among the NHL’s small army of linesmen and referees.
The 31-year-old Orangeville, Ontario, native is a relative newbie to the league. He’ll begin his second season as an NHL linesman when he takes to the ice in Buffalo Saturday in a game between the Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning.
Last season, Alphonso worked 50 NHL games along with 37 American Hockey League contests and that league’s Calder Cup Final.
“I’m a big hockey fan, so I love that I have the best seat in the house,” Alphonso told me recently. “I enjoy the fact that I’m there. As an on-ice official I feel like I’m part of the game, I’m in the game.”
Sharrers, 48, is the veteran, starting his 26th year as an NHL official. He became the league’s first black linesman when he worked a match between the Boston Bruins and Quebec Nordiques in October 1990.
A native of New Westminster, British Columbia, Sharrers made history again in April 2001 when he became the league’s first black referee, officiating a contest between the Philadelphia Flyers and Lightning in April 2001.
Since joining the NHL, Sharrers has officiated in more than 1,190 NHL regular season
games and 163 playoff games. He’s worked seven Stanley Cup Finals, the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and the 2006 NHL All-Star Game in Dallas.
“Having done this job going on 26 years, I can say without a doubt that on a daily, game-in, game-out basis, you’re challenged every time you step on the ice,” Sharrers told me. “It’s very demanding. Physically, for one. And, of course, there’s the mental side of it because with the speed of the game now, and how it’s evolved into such a quick, fast-paced game, it’s a constant mental challenge game-in and game-out to be prepared, to be focused for 60 minutes of a game.”
Sharrers and Alphonso are co-workers but they haven’t worked an NHL game together yet. But that hasn’t stopped them from forming a mutual admiration society.
“He’s a tremendous young man, he’s got a great character, he’s got a good hockey IQ,” Sharrers said of Alphonso. “My goal when I got hired was to work the Stanley Cup, and I was fortunate enough to do that seven times. At this point in my career, it’s probably more of a responsibility to try to help the young people in the business, working with a guy like Shandor and give them the opportunity, the experience that was given to me when I first started by the veteran officials when I first started.”
“I looked up to him even before I started officiating,” Alphonso said of Sharrers. “Any time you see a player of color in the NHL, you notice him. And to see an on-ice official, it was pretty amazing to me. My very first training camp, he said ‘If you ever have any questions, no matter what it is, no matter what time, call.’ That was huge.”
So what possesses a person to put on minimal protective gear, carry a whistle, get on the ice and to try to police aggressive, well-armored players wielding sticks and possessing the power to launch pucks over 100 miles an hour in front of thousands of screaming, beer-fueled fans?
Sharrers and Alphonso both started out as hockey players. But Sharrers came to the realization at 15 that “my chances of making it as a player weren’t that good” so he sought a different path to the NHL.
“I turned my attention to officiating, thinking that could be a vehicle I could take to the NHL,” he told me. “I started working my way up through the junior hockey ranks in Canada, went to some officiating schools in the summer, got noticed, got scouted. I worked in the Western Hockey League, probably my first taste of elite hockey, in 1985. Then I got hired (by the NHL) in 1990. Officiating was a way of staying involved in a game I love.”
Alphonso played hockey through major juniors and college. He was a rugged left wing who played 183 games for the Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves from 2001-02 to 2003-04, notching 25 goals, 48 assists and collecting 143 penalty minutes.
He went on to skate for Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, from 2005-06 to 2009-10. He tallied 18 goals, 22 assists, and accumulated 121 penalty minutes in 111 games for the Thunderwolves.
“I was on the other end yelling at the referee,” he said.
During his fourth year at Lakehead, Alphonso received an invitation from the NHL to participate in the NHL Amateur Exposure Combine, an officiating camp designed to entice major junior, U.S., and Canadian college hockey players to consider becoming linesmen or referees.
After his final season at Lakehead, Alphonso was prepared to sign a professional contract to play in the Central Hockey League when he had a sudden change of heart.
“The NHL kind of told us, ‘If you’re good, you can get to the NHL in five years,'” He recalled. “I thought why not give it try, I never officiated before, and I really enjoyed it once I tried it out.”
“Learned a lot from him and the instructors at that camp,” Alphonso said. “In three days, they showed me everything, the basics and the fundamentals for officiating.”
He then embarked on an experience-gathering, dues-paying journey through the alphabet soup of hockey leagues.
“I went from minor hockey to the OHL,” he said. “Second-year officiating in the OHL and in the OHA as well, doing major junior and Tier II junior – did both those leagues for three years. Also worked minor hockey at the same time. I felt I had a lot to learn so I wanted to be on the ice as much as I could.”
The NHL invited Alphonso back to its exposure combine in summer 2014 and hired him two weeks after the camp ended. Now he sometimes finds himself officiating games with former hockey teammates, opponents, or players he trained with before he donned the zebra stripes.
“I had a situation in the AHL, an individual I used to train with quite a bit. I had to kick him out of the face-off because of a violation he committed,” Alphonso recalled. “He comes over to me in a TV time-out, he’s like ‘Are you serious? You’re kicking me out of a face-off? We used to run hills and puke together after hot days working out so hard and you’re kicking me out?'”
Alphonso replied “Yeah, we used to spend a lot of time training and working hard and running hills together, but I have to do this job now.”