Shandor Alphonso is brimming with confidence after becoming a “Bubble Brother.”
Alphonso not only worked his first Stanley Cup Playoffs as a linesman, he did it under extraordinary circumstances with teams and officiating crews sequestered in Toronto and Edmonton and fans being unable to attend games due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
The lone Black on-ice official in the NHL emerged from the Toronto bubble after 32 days, during which he worked two exhibition games, three games in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, two round-robin games and four in the first round of the playoffs, feeling that he belongs with the best of the best holding the whistle.
Alphonso was one of 40 linesmen and referees who earned “Bubble Brothers” patches for being selected to work this year’s playoffs, which included the qualifying round and round-robin games, the first and second rounds, the conference finals and the Stanley Cup Final.
“Playoffs are a tough situation no matter what, but that [it] was a unique situation made [things] a little bit tougher for everybody,” Alphonso said. “It was kind of nice to be, like, ‘I’m definitely up there with these guys that are so good in our business.’ We’ve got guys that work the Stanley Cup Final consistently every year. To be able to go out there and feel that you are very close to that level by being there and doing a great job, it kind of made me feel like part of the elite group, part of the guys that do really well.
“I kind of felt like, ‘Hey, I can hang with these guys’ when you put in the work and stay focused.”
The 36-year-old had set making the Stanley Cup Playoffs officiating roster as his goal for the 2019-20 season. Officials are selected to work the playoffs based on their regular-season performance.
Alphonso, a former financial adviser who played for Sudbury of the Ontario Hockey League and Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, had worked as a standby during each of the past three postseasons.
His officiating career began in 2010 when he was invited to the NHL Amateur Exposure combine, an officiating camp that aims to encourage junior and college players to become referees and linesmen. He worked varied levels of junior hockey, then progressed to the minor leagues. The NHL invited Alphonso back to its inaugural Officials Exposure Combine in the summer of 2014 and hired him two weeks after the camp ended.
Alphonso worked his first NHL game and became the League’s second Black official on Oct. 17, 2014, when the Florida Panthers played the Buffalo Sabres. Jay Sharrers, the League’s first Black official, retired at the end of the 2015-16 season after nearly 30 years of service.
In 2016, Alphonso became a full-time NHL linesman after being a “40/40” official — splitting games between the NHL and the American Hockey League. He’s worked 382 NHL regular-season games since 2014.
NHL senior vice president and director of officiating supervision Stephen Walkom said Alphonso “did great” in his first Stanley Cup Playoffs appearance.
“Shandor’s one of those people who didn’t have a ton of experience in officiating before he decided that was something he wanted to try to do,” Walkom said. “The great thing about Shandor is he has wicked natural ability. He’s a fantastic skater, he keeps himself in excellent shape and from all the time in playing in juniors and college, he’s got a real high hockey IQ. He understands where the players are going, and he works hard to stay out of their way.”
Alphonso said life in the Toronto playoff bubble wasn’t too difficult, though he admitted it was a little odd because the hotel where all of the officials lived was only about 50 miles from his home.
“For me, if I have a Scotiabank Arena game, it’s a home game — I get to drive home after and sleep in my own bed,” he said. “So it was a little weird at the beginning, being so close to the family and not being able to see them. But I was there to do a job, and the great thing about my family is they were supporting me and cheering me along the way.”
The officials, including volunteer off-ice officials, had access to the same amenities that teams living in the bubble had — including golf simulators, pingpong tables, gyms and use of Toronto’s BMO Field — to keep them occupied when they weren’t working.
“The events staff of the NHL put the guys together at the various hotels on the same floor, so that’s a lot like training camp,” Walkom said. “All the dynamics that normally go on from city to city were replicated in the bubble as best that guys could.”
Alphonso said he settled into a routine of working out in the hotel gym, watching games in a Scotiabank Arena box reserved for officials and playing spirited hockey games with fellow linesmen and referees in the morning.
“They’re all very competitive because most of them played hockey at some level,” Walkom said of the officials.
That competitive fire extended to the bosses, Alphonso said.
“My team didn’t do that well,” he said. “We were playing against (referee) Wes McCauley team’s and Stephen Walkom was actually on that team too. They made sure to let us know that we were losing every time we were losing. Just throw out a little reminder every now and then, ‘Hey, we’re beating you, just so you guys know.'”
The officials’ games at the practice rinks in Toronto and Edmonton caught the eyes of some NHL players. After watching one session, a player told Alphonso “Hey, saw you had a couple of snipes today.”
“It was kind of funny, they were actually paying attention to us being on the ice and kind of being, like, ‘Oh, some of these guys can actually play,” Alphonso said. “That was kind of cool.”
When Alphonso wasn’t playing, he spent some of his off-hours scouting NHL players during games from the Scotiabank Arena box.
“I’d go there, watch the game, take mental notes of who’s doing what on the face-offs, what you have to look for, just mental preparation,” he said. “The teams are out scouting, so we kind of have to do the same thing.”
With his first trip to the playoffs under his belt, Alphonso wants more. He took a week off after the first round, then returned to the gym to prepare for this season, which Commissioner Gary Bettman said is targeted to begin on Jan. 1, 2021.
“I felt I did a really good job and felt close to the second round, though I didn’t quite make it,” he said. “My goal next season is to go farther than the second round.”