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Ramsey: Liberty High grad keeps level head on ice, in stripes

By: David Ramsey, The Gazette
April 10, 2014 Updated: April 11, 2014 at 4:47 pm
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Tom Chmielewski skated alone on the Long Island ice while a proud father watched. Tom, a Liberty High School grad, was about to make his debut Tuesday as an NHL official, the culmination of a dozen years of diligent labor.

Bob Chmielewski's eyes filled with tears.

"Oh, yeah," Bob said. "I teared up. When you see your kid live his dream, it's an amazing feeling."

At the same moment, an equally proud mother was watching. Jean Chmielewski smiled as her son glided on the ice.

"Just beaming ear to ear," Jean said. "A proud moment as a parent. It was awesome."

While his father cried and his mother beamed, Tom skated along at the Nassau Coliseum. The Senators and Islanders would join him, but this was his moment.

"I was happy to be there," he said. "Happy for the moment."

After the game, Jean and Bob came down to say hello. This is when Jean began to cry, when the moment fully hit her, and it was the same for her son.

"To sit down and finally take a breath and realize what I just did," Tom said Thursday. "A day and a half later, I'm still on cloud nine, and my heart is still racing. It hasn't totally set in. I was trying to treat it as another hockey game but understood it was not just another hockey game."

Tom, 26, is working this weekend as an American Hockey League referee, the NHL's version of Triple-A.

He is not scheduled to work another NHL game this season, but expects to work games during the 2014-2015 season while he auditions for a full-time job as an NHL official.

He's a member of the class of 2005 at Liberty, where he started for the 2004 state title soccer team and played defense for the hockey team and catcher and outfielder for the baseball team. Frank Serratore wanted Tom to play hockey at Air Force, but a thigh injury sidelined his playing career.

He enjoyed all his sports, but the lure of bringing order to games always, borrowing his word, "intrigued" him.

He and his father began officiating together when Tom was 13. They worked an 8-and-under game at Air Force's Cadet Ice Arena, and Tom savored the work immediately, even as he noticed a troubling aspect of his new hobby.

Hockey fans shouted at him.

A lot.

"It's hard having adults yell at you," Tom said. "But after the initial shock of that, I did come to really enjoy refereeing."

The booing has never stopped. A few years ago, Bob and Jean drove to Kearney, Neb., to watch Tom at work. This was a tense journey.

Kearney fans shouted mean words to Tom, called him names and all of this abuse was delivered at high volume. This was brutal for his mom.

"It was tough to listen to them boo your child," she said. "They said some pretty mean things."

She worried about her boy. Was he ready for a career spent listening to cruel words?

She talked with Tom after the game. She was upset. He was fine.

"Mom," Tom said, "they're not yelling at me. They're just yelling at the stripes."

At that instant, Jean realized Tom had chosen the right calling. Yes, she said to herself, my boy will thrive.

"I could not take people and players and coaches yelling at me," she said. "He can handle that type of stress."

Serratore agrees. He's known Tom for years. He wanted to see Tom in a Falcons jersey, but he's pleased to see him wearing a striped shirt.

"Tom is very level-headed, and that's what an official need to be," Serratore said. "They need to be the calming influence within the chaos in the game. Emotions are high, and those guys who have a calm demeanor best handle those situations."

Serratore shares a common trait with many of those who adore hockey.

Fans, coaches, players ... they all enjoy yelling at the officials.

That's how the hockey crowd acts.

What's needed is a calm skater in the middle of all the craziness. A calm skater with clear eyes.

"You can't just be another match on the tinderbox," Serratore said.

Tom Chmielewski is many things.

He's not a match.

-

Twitter: @davidlukeramsey

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