It is a brisk Saturday morning in February outside of the Chelmsford Forum ice rink, and it is even colder inside. Families are gathered to watch a Bantam(13 to 14-year-old league) ice hockey game between Billerica and Chelmsford, but games like these would not be possible without unsung heroes like 20-year-old referee Ben Wharram.
Wharram is a full-time journalism student at UMass Lowell, and a part-time hockey referee for players age six through 16. Wharram grew up in Petersham, Mass. in a house full of passionate hockey fans.
“I’ve been playing ice hockey my whole life,” says Wharram, “Both me and my two older brothers grew up playing.” Wharram was a year-round athlete in high school and although he no longer plays sports in college, his athletic spirit has stayed with him.
Almost every Saturday and Sunday morning, while many of his peers are sleeping until noon after their late nights out, Wharram is up at six a.m., shuffling around his apartment to get ready for a full day of refereeing. Wharram admits, “When you have to get up at 6 o’clock on a Saturday morning for a squirt (6 to 7-year-old league) game it would be really hard for someone who didn’t love the sport to have the motivation to go.”
Anyone watching Wharram on the ice can see why he wakes up on those cold winter mornings before sunrise. His passion for the sport is palpable. Where some referees appear to be conserving their energy, Wharram expertly tracks down the puck as it glides up and down the rink. He skates with intensity to make sure he is as close to the action as possible, his eyes predicting where the puck will go next.
It is only Wharram’s second year as a hockey referee, and although it can be very challenging at times he says that his only regret is not starting sooner. On average, Wharram makes about $2,000 each month working weekends alone.
Wharram says that he is satisfied with the amount of money he makes as a referee, but admits that another drawback to his job is that it consumes his entire weekends. Wharram says that he works an average of 10-15 games every weekend, leaving him very little free time.
“It’s definitely too much sometimes,” he says. “But you just have to budget your time. You can’t really be playing video games during the week, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.”
Wharram spends most of his free time with his girlfriend of three years, Melissa DiPano, who describes her boyfriend as, “One of those people who is charismatic without trying to be,” and “easy going and fun to be with.”
When Wharram puts on his black and white stripped jersey and ice skates, however, he has to shift his easy-going attitude to one more authoritarian.
“He is very serious during games,” said DiPano. “He typically refs with guys that are a lot older than him, so he kind of has to establish respect.”
Wharram’s coworkers also notice his dedication and commitment to the sport.
Chris Ronayne, age 32, a fellow ice hockey referee that works for the same company as Wharram says, “You can tell Ben really cares about the sport, and that’s such an important quality for any referee to have. He also treats the job very seriously and always remains professional.”
It can be hard to stay professional when being forced to confront the violent nature of hockey.
“I’ve had to break up plenty of fights, man,” Wharram says, “and I’ve even gotten punched and elbowed doing it.”
Along with the physical damage, he says that it is not uncommon for him to also take verbal abuse from parents of the players. At almost every game he referees he says that there are parents that yell things at him like “You’re blowing the game!” or “Get your eyes checked!”
Wharram says that he has even had to throw out coaches for using obscene language in front of young children. “There are some games that make me want to never ref again,” Wharram admits, “But once I go home and cool off for a while, I’m usually ready to go back the next day. And the Money helps too,” he says with a smirk.
Wharram says that he had never thought about a career in hockey until his freshman year of college. With his extensive hockey knowledge and natural athletic ability, he decided to leave his “boring” dishwasher job, take the referee certification exam and start refereeing his sophomore year.
When asked what his dream job would be he said, “I think it would be really cool to ref professionally, or for juniors over in Europe.” Wharram also explains that this idea is not too far fetched since he comes from New England, which he calls the “hub of hockey,” making his hockey experience more credible and valuable to potential employers.
But for now, Wharram says that he will continue to rise and grind through those long winter weekends, even after a demanding week of speed reading books and writing late night essays, because his love for the sport is too strong to give it up.