RALEIGH — There may not be a more thankless job than that of a youth hockey referee. Not only do the two officials pull double duty by serving as referees and linesmen — a job done by four in the NHL — but the jeers from the consistently dissatisfied bipartisan crowd bounces off the walls of the mostly empty rinks where the games are played.
On Friday at Raleigh’s Polar IcePlex, the referee surely couldn’t help but hear the crowd pleading with him to hurry up as the running clock — a staple in house hockey leagues — wound down while he explained a boarding penalty to the scorekeeper. The playoff game was tight, and the trailing team’s fans were anxious for their squad to attempt to erase the one-goal deficit.
The fans likely don’t see past the black and white stripes, though it’s hard to miss “Universal” written across the official’s back.
“I wanted to learn from all different aspects and get on the ice,” Kevin Universal said following the game, the second of two he officiated that night. “It is an eye-opening experience to learn and grow that way, actually learn the rulebook.”
When it comes to hockey in the Carolinas, Universal is more than simply a referee. The 49-year-old West Point graduate from Niagara Falls, N.Y., has sat on the board of directors of the Carolina Amateur Hockey Association for the past 14 years, serving as CAHA’s director for the last decade.
CAHA is an affiliate of USA Hockey, serving youth and adult amateur hockey in both North and South Carolina in the Southeastern District that stretches from Maryland to Florida. This week, Universal will be honored at USA Hockey’s annual congress in Colorado Springs, Colo., as the organization’s Adult Member of the Year.
The award is given to “an individual who has made outstanding contributions during many years of service to the ice hockey community as an adult player and/or volunteer.”
Often, the perception of a hockey market is tied to the success of its best players. Look no further than Arizona-raised 2016 first overall pick Auston Matthews, who has 74 goals in two NHL seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, all before he would be old enough to crack open a cold one in the parking lot following a Phoenix beer league game.
While Universal sees the importance of nurturing the best youth hockey players in the area — he raved about how much improvement he’s witnessed in the Carolinas throughout his time with USA Hockey — he has made the everyday player his focus, serving on the national-level adult council of USA Hockey for 10 years.
“In my journey on the board, initially the kind of focus was maybe a smaller population of the elite or better youth athletes and being focused around that,” he said. “I’ve come in and tried to do a little bit different emphasis — instead of that top 3 to 5 percent of our membership, put the focus on the base of the membership: the house player, the rec travel, the adult player.”
Universal, who moved to Raleigh in 1999 after spending much of the ’90s in the Army and a couple years in Colorado, actually didn’t start skating until his two sons, now 23 and 25, started playing. His younger son is now a rising junior at Neumann University, a Division III college in Pennsylvania, and plays defense for the Knights, while his older son continues to play adult hockey in the Triangle.
Universal began playing in an adult league, and after a couple years he was encouraged by others to run for a board spot with USA Hockey. He now devotes hundreds of hours a year volunteering for the organization on top of his day job as vice president of enterprise data management at First Citizens Bank.
Universal has been attending USA Hockey’s annual congress for years, sitting in on meetings and presentations explaining the latest efforts by the organization to both grow and improve the game in the U.S.
This year, however, Universal will be joining names like NHL star Patrick Kane, top-ranked 2019 NHL Draft prospect Jack Hughes, Team USA gold medalist Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson and others in being honored at the June 8 President’s Awards Dinner.
“It’s a great family of hockey people out there that you meet and get to volunteer and work with,” he said. “So those relationships and being able to be around this board and continue to enjoy and give back, that’s definitely something I see myself doing while I’m still healthy — for a couple more decades, hopefully.”