Tyler Shaw had always dreamed of making it to the pros.
And while the nature of the jersey that he wears might be a little different than he imagined it as a kid, the dream still persists.
Now 28 years old and three years removed from his last game as a Laurentian Voyageur, the local product received a contract from the American Hockey League in mid-December - as a part-time regional linesmen, if and when a season commences.
It’s been a very rapid progression for the young man who has always balanced academics and athletics far better than most, and who continues to receive support from a whole variety of sources, largely based on his sincere willingness to both accept help and advice, and translate them into continual improvement.
This approach runs parallel to his mindset during his playing days, as more of a stay-at-home defenceman, whether that be with minor hockey outfits in both Sudbury or Copper Cliff, or in the AAA ranks with the Nickel Capital Wolves, on to his junior days with both the Markham Waxers and Aurora Tigers, and capping things off at the post-secondary level with both the Sacred Heart Pioneers (NCAA) and hometown Voyageurs.
“It’s got to be fun, showing up to the arena should be fun,” said Shaw, who completed his first year as an official with the Ontario Hockey League during the 2019-2020 campaign. “Being around your teammates, making those friendships, all of those kinds of things should be fun.”
“You should be looking at your schedule, knowing that you get to go to the rink that day, and there should be an excitement with that.”
Where some are hell-bent on fast-tracking their hockey careers, Shaw understood the value of patience, typically displaying a grounded perspective that served him well, over the years and in the end.
“You have to remember that it’s not necessarily a sprint to get up to the next level,” he said. “I was maybe not exactly a late bloomer, but I always wanted to make sure that I was able to excel at the level I was at before moving forward. I had always prioritized school, as well, so a big thing for me was finishing out my last year of high-school (at home) before leaving.”
Parlaying his three years in the OJHL (Ontario Junior Hockey League) into an opportunity to travel State-side, suiting up with a school that was literally a ten minute drive from where fellow Sudburian Samantha Cooper was taking the next step in her basketball voyage (Fairfield, Connecticut), Shaw walked away arguably with more from the off-ice experience that his actual game experience at Sacred Heart.
“No experience is a bad experience,” he said. “I remember being reminded early that you are a student-athlete, not an athlete-student. I really took that to heart. Being a good student allows you that opportunity to be an athlete.”
The eldest of two children in the family (sister Kelsey was a provincial caliber gymnast) would ultimately leverage two years of studies in Exercise Science to a degree in Kinesiology at L.U., all while becoming the first international student and first member of the men’s hockey team to serve as a resident assistant at Sacred Heart.
“I was fortunate enough to meet a lot of great people at the university, even outside of hockey,” stated Shaw.
Yet for as much as he never lost sight of a back-up plan, the 6’2” always fit blueliner could not relinquish his on-ice passion. As his time at Laurentian came to an end, Shaw would hit the cross-roads that so many others had come to face. “I definitely had aspirations to play professional hockey, even if it was just for a year or two, just to say that I got to that level.”
While the opportunity was there, the heart simply wasn’t.
“It wasn’t until just a few weeks before training camps hit that I realized that I really wasn’t sure if I still wanted to grind,” Shaw continued. “I wasn’t sure that was for me anymore.”
The winter of 2019-2020 would allow for a reset, as the recent university graduate garnered key clinical experience in his field, all while setting hockey on the shelf - at least momentarily.
“It wasn’t until the next spring, when I saw something on Twitter about the fact that the NHL was looking at former players, from the pro level, the junior level, the university level, to shift over into officiating,” he said. “That was the first time that I had even considered it.”
Former players who make the switch to the dark side (tongue planted firmly in cheek) often include gents who are well acquainted with the sin bin - but that isn’t Tyler Shaw. “I wasn’t a big penalty minute guy, throughout my career,” he said. “There was never really too much yelling at the refs, from my end of things.”
“That’s just not really the type of player that I was.”
But for as much as Shaw had often adorned a letter with several of his former teams, serving as an associate captain many times over, he honestly had spent precious little time worrying about how the game might be seen from the viewpoint of the men (or women) in stripes. And quite truthfully, he had no idea whether this new direction with a sport that he loved was a decent fit or not.
“I really didn’t know how far I might be able to take it, or if I would even be good at it, but I knew that I still had a passion for the game, and I was more or less still in playing shape,” he said. “This was the closest thing to still being a player.”
Attending a Don Koharski Officiating Camp in the summer of 2019, Shaw would catch the eyes of key referee evaluators, including Coniston native and OHL referee in chief Conrad Hache. “I kind of went into it blind and just tried to work as hard as I could and learn as much as I could while I was there,” he said.
Shaw had size and could skate - a great starting point for an aspiring young linesman, in particular.
“I had some fundamental abilities from my playing days, but it’s going to take some time to transform me into an official,” he said. “I needed to stay patient. As a player, you think that you’re going to step right in, but you’re humbled pretty quickly.”
Still, inasmuch as both the NHL and OHL have identified former players as a key recruiting haven of future officials, doors would be opened for Shaw. After working just a pair of NOJHL exhibition games, here he was on the lines at Sudbury Arena, as the Wolves readied themselves, in September of 2019, with a pre-season outing.
“I wasn’t sure how I would be received, but I can’t say enough good things about all of the officials that I’ve had the opportunity to work with,” said Shaw. “I can’t thank all of those people enough.”
The truth is that the brotherhood of hockey officials can always make time to assist anyone who is willing to accept guidance. “Doug Horner has been a guy who has been instrumental for me, since I stepped into officiating, just the time that he took to watch and supervise and help me develop last season.”
Ditto for the likes of Dan McCourt and countless others on a local level. But for as much as counterparts can share words of wisdom, there is no substitution for game experience. It’s been an absolute whirlwind of officiating knowledge that has been thrown his way, and Shaw has embraced it better than most.
“You don’t get a break,” Shaw opined. “You’re out there the full twenty minutes, every period. There are times, as a player, where you’re just sitting on the bench, talking to a teammate. You kind of tune things out a little bit. As an official, you have to be sharp all the time.”
Completing his MBA on-line over the next couple of years, Shaw had already received approved from the OHL to move south in order to expand his schedule of games. And while the current pandemic may throw a wrench into his plans, short-term, the well-spoken young man has given himself a window of at least a few years to see where this leads.
After all, this is the pros, even if in a different role than Tyler Shaw always imagined.