A Dream Come True

Mitch Dunning, NHL Referee

Story by Michael Seguin
Photography courtesy Mitch Dunning

When talking to National Hockey League (NHL) referee Mitch Dunning, one thing becomes apparent: That he’s spent most of his life gliding across the ice.

Born and raised in Tecumseh, Ontario, Mitch Dunning describes himself as a “product of Sun County Minor Hockey.”

“I’ve played there my whole life,” Mitch explains. “Some of my earliest memories of being on the ice were training with Andy Paquette. We’d have these 6:30 a.m. practices before school. I remember skating with Andy in the freezing-cold Tecumseh Arena on those Friday mornings from when I was eight years old up until I was drafted in 2008.”

Mitch spent his earliest years playing with his older brother’s team, the Tecumseh Eagles. He later graduated to AAA hockey, where he played with the Sun County Panthers. At sixteen, he was drafted into the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), where he played for the Sarnia Sting.

“I went up to Sarnia when I was sixteen,” Mitch recalls. “I played a handful of games for them that season. I practiced daily with the team.”

Prior to the start of his second season, Mitch was traded by the Windsor Spitfires. He ended up playing for his hometown team from 2009 until 2012.

“With the Spitfires, I was able to play on some pretty good squads,” Mitch states. “Arguably, some of the best major junior teams in major junior history. That was our second Memorial Cup year. I got to play with the likes of Taylor Hall, Ryan Ellis, Jack Campbell etc.”

January 27, 2020: Referee Mitch Dunning (43) watches play during the NHL game between the New Jersey Devils and the Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, Canada. Daniel Lea/CSM

After finishing with the Spitfires, Mitch went over to play for the University of Windsor. However, he only managed to play for them for a couple of games.

“I ran into some injury trouble,” Mitch explains. “I had some issues with my right and left knees. I required two ACL reconstructions in three years. Which pretty much sealed the deal in terms of my professional hockey career! I was sidelined for an entire year.”

While recovering, Mitch explored what life beyond the rink had to offer.

“I realized that there were other things in life I enjoyed doing besides hockey,” Mitch states. “I’m a big fan of recreational sports. I’m very active. I like to ride my bike. Being sidelined for a whole year just helped me put everything into perspective.”

After completing the rehabilitation process on his knees, Mitch spent some time coaching as a way to give back to his community.

And it was while coaching that Mitch unknowingly began to transition into what would eventually take him back to the ice.

“I spent some time coaching minor hockey with the Belle River Minor Hockey organization,” Mitch explains. “And during that time, I started officiating. One of my Dads golf buddies was the president of the local Windsor Essex County Referees Association. He suggested I get involved with their organization as a way to stay involved with the game. So, I decided to try my hand at it.”

Mitch quickly discovered that he enjoyed officiating. During his next off-season, he interviewed some local referees to find out how he could take his new passion back to the world-class rink.

“I wanted to move through the ranks,” Mitch states. “They told me about Don Koharski’s camp. They said there was a lot of guys there to help expose me to managers of higher levels. The officiating directors from the OHL would be there, plus a bunch of current on-ice officials. And of course Don Koharski who is one of my Officiating Managers in the NHL.”

And Mitch’s time at camp paid off. The day after returning home, the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA) hired him to officiate Junior C and Junior B games. Shortly thereafter, Conrad Hache, the Director of Officiating for the OHL invited him to a training camp. And shortly after that, Mitch was invited to the NHL’s Exposure Combine event.

“Everything snowballed, from that one camp,” Mitch explains. “Over the duration of that one summer.”

Over the next several years, Mitch officiated across various leagues across Canada and the United States, all at the same time.

And now, six years after embarking on this new path, here he is, officiating for the NHL.

“Well, I don’t think many young hockey players envision themselves as an official,” Mitch laughs. “Obviously, you grow up viewing them as the guys that throw you in the penalty box. So, you never really think of yourself as following that route. But, for me, it was a very organic process. It’s something I really took to. I really love it.”

Mitch identifies the biggest change from a player to an official is managing all the smaller events that go on within the game.

“As a player, you do a lot of puck tracking,” Mitch explains. “You’re always following the play. You’re puck focused! But as an official, you always need to be aware of where the puck is and how the play is developing, but you are kind of paying more attention to the intricacies within the game. Guys going at each other. Sticking with plays. The dirty plays behind the play. It’s really easy to watch the game as a whole, but as an official, you need to keep your head on a swivel. We make thousands of split-second decisions in a 60-minute hockey game.”

Mitch also describes a large part of refereeing managing the different personalities of the players.

“There are some guys you work well with, some guys you don’t work well with,” Mitch states. “And you’ve got some guys that want to be your best buddy. Sometimes you have to take a step back and say, ‘Hey, listen. I’ve got a job to do.’ You’re not always going to keep guys happy. At the end of the day, half the players on the ice won’t be happy with any given call that’s being made. But, you’ve got a job to do.”

And despite the challenges, nothing could compare to Mitch’s first time officiating an NHL game.

“My number one experience was officiating my first NHL game!” Mitch explains. “I got to officiate a match between the Ottawa Senators and the Florida Panthers. At the time, Bob Boughner was the Head Coach of the Panthers. And Boughner was my coach at the Windsor Spitfires. So, seeing that come full circle was amazing.

But for Mitch, it all comes down to the opportunity to share the ice with the game’s biggest stars.

“Obviously, as a young Canadian boy, it’s anybody’s dream to step onto NHL ice,” Mitch states. “Just to share the rink with all those world-class athletes and world-class hockey players is a neat opportunity. On any given night, you’ve got some of the best hockey minds in the world out on the ice. Being able to wear that crest on my chest is a dream come true.”

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