|Erie's Kaval learns while officiating in flood-weary N.D.|
|Written by Victor Fernandes - Erie Times News|
From his hotel window, Keith Kaval discovered how hockey has helped Fargo, N.D., persevere. He saw the top of trees and street signs. Sandbags were stacked. The water was still high.
For two weeks, Kaval has officiated at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship -- his third experience on hockey's international stage. But his experience off the ice has been equally enlightening.
For the resilient, hard-working people of Fargo, who have encountered record-setting flooding the past month, the tournament is "a release to see the event take off and to see some good hockey," Kaval said.
He heard stories of tournament volunteers working for a living and then filling sandbags to prevent their lives from being destroyed by flood waters. He heard how residents have worked together.
"It's not a surprise to me that they would come together," said Kaval, 31, an Erie native.
While spending two years in Des Moines, Iowa, earlier this decade officiating in the United States Hockey League, he discovered the work ethic Midwestern people display. Everywhere he has traveled during his career -- from Lake Placid, N.Y., to Lubbock, Texas, and from Canada to Poland -- Kaval has gained an appreciation for the game he loves and for life worlds away from Erie.
"I'm getting paid to travel the country and the world to referee hockey," he said. "I could be doing worse things; that's for sure. I wouldn't trade this now. ... I've been very fortunate."
In the next year, he could head to Saskatchewan for the IIHF World Junior Championship, to Germany for the IIHF World Championship, or even the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia. If he is not picked for Vancouver, IIHF officials told Kaval that he's in line for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Strong marks from evaluators in Fargo could move Kaval closer to those opportunities. Last April, high marks in the U-18's Division IA tournament in Poland cleared his path to Fargo.
But no matter what, the experience has been a blessing.
He has met interesting people -- from tournament officials and volunteers to referees and linesmen. He has learned how to work with on-ice officials from other countries while overcoming language barriers and different approaches to the game.
"Once we get on the ice together," he said, "it's pretty seamless. Everyone understands the game."
He had planned to return home Monday. Instead, he expects to head to California for remaining first-round games in the ECHL playoffs before starting the second round.
Kaval spends little time at home during the season. Given his full-time ECHL job, part-time work with the American Hockey League and this international tournament, he has been in Erie only three days in the past month.
"As fun as that is," he said, "I'm ready (to come home). If I get two or three days at home, I'd be a happy camper. It gets a little old at times."
But in the offseason, boredom sets in quickly. For six or seven months, officiating is life. Hockey has been part of his life much longer.
As a child, he started as a goaltender. But then a friend asked a 14-year-old Kaval if he was interested in earning extra money as an Erie Youth Hockey Association referee. Before long, it was his passion, and nothing stood in his way.
Not the boot-camp approach at the 1999 Eastern Regional Camp in Burlington, Vt., where he awakened at 5 a.m. to run two miles, power skate, work in the classroom and then officiate games at night.
Not moving away from home -- two years in Des Moines and a year apiece in Oklahoma City and Lubbock, Texas -- and then spending month after month on the road officiating games.
Not being in league after league -- college clubs, Junior A, Junior B, Western Hockey League and USHL at the amateur level; Central, International and Southern Professional hockey leagues in the pro ranks.
And now, not the apparent end to his NHL dream.
Given the competition level "and where I see myself in the pecking order," he said, "I don't think it's going to happen. That's fine with me. ... I'm pretty happy and content with where I am right now. It's been a good run. I have no complaints."
Perhaps he will stay in the ECHL. Perhaps he could reach the AHL full-time. Through some tournament officials in Fargo, Kaval could have a chance to officiate in Europe. But international events like the U-18s intrigue him.
Whether officiating on the ice or watching from the crowd, he has seen what these events mean to people. TSN broadcast the Canada-Sweden match he officiated on Tuesday across Canada. Later that night, he witnessed a capacity crowd chanting "USA, USA" during the host country's match against Russia.
Outside, parts of Fargo were still flooded. Inside, hockey made it all seem better.
"It's pretty sad in a way that (flooding is) going on," Kaval said. "But they've really put on a good show."