When Andrew Bruggeman first started officiating hockey games at the age of 12, the motivation was simple.
He played youth hockey in Mankato, and his parents Dave and Julie thought it would be a good way to get more ice time, and make some money.
“Mom and dad would shuttle me and my brother up to the rink, and we’d work three or four games a day,” Bruggeman said. “You get a $200 check when you’re 12 years old ... you think you’re a millionaire.”
As Bruggeman got older, he continued to officiate youth hockey games, but still, it was mostly just a way to make some money.
However, after graduating from Mankato West in 2009, he started working high school games, and those high school games eventually turned into juniors games.
Finally, four years ago, he was able to take the massive leap to affiliated hockey, working ECHL games. Then, a year later, he got to work American Hockey League games, just one level below the National Hockey League.
Now, what was once just a part-time job has become a major part of Bruggeman’s career.
“I enjoy the challenge of the games,” Bruggeman said. “I could watch hockey all year long.”
Earlier this month, Bruggeman was named the recipient of the Ryan Birmingham Memorial Award. The award annually honors an ECHL official for “contributions and dedication to the league officiating staff,” and is voted upon by on-ice officials throughout the league.
“It means a lot because it’s a team vote,” Bruggeman said. “I try to just be good to everyone I’m working with. I want to make sure that my teammates on the ice are looked after.”
While the award is nice, officiating is still a thankless job, and doing at Bruggeman’s level comes with an extremely difficult schedule.
Once things get rolling in October, he basically follows the same script each week through the end of May — get on a plane on Tuesday, fly to one of the league’s sites to start the work week and fly back home Sunday.
The leagues book his flights, but it’s his job to figure out hotels in the cities that don’t have league-owned apartments. Rental cars are also his responsibility, as hotels aren’t always near the rinks.
“The travel part is kind of the bear of the whole thing,” Bruggeman said. “When you do have your couple off days, it’s doing your laundry, trying to get ready for your next trip. You’re home long enough to say ‘hi’ to everybody and then you leave again.”
With the AHL and ECHL seasons being canceled due to COVID-19, Bruggeman has been able to spend some extra time at home, which has been nice. However, it comes at a cost.
Bruggeman was slated to officiate the 2020 men’s world hockey championships in Switzerland next month, an amazing opportunity that was ripped away by the the virus.
“Outside of the Olympics, it’s probably the biggest tournament you can work,” Bruggeman said. “You try to get through it and hope there’s another opportunity.”
Like many ECHL and AHL officials, Bruggeman’s end game is clear — become an NHL official. While he’s on the right path, there are a lot of things Bruggeman can’t control.
Being in affiliated hockey, he’s in the training ground to become an NHL official. But still, most who get to that level won’t make it, as there are very few jobs, and they rarely open up.
The NHL has officiating managers who act as scouts for future officials. Bruggeman said a big part of getting to the next level is having good performances when they’re watching.
“You just try to string one good game together after another, and the hope is that you impress a handful of them,” he said.
As far as the timeline goes, Bruggeman says anything is possible. He could get a call next week saying there’s a spot open for him, but there’s also a chance the NHL could tell him it’s not interested.
Because of this, he makes sure not to think too much about it. Instead, he simply tries to get each call right, work as hard as possible, and most importantly, have fun.
“Whatever opportunity that’s presented, I want to keep working the best games in the best league that I can,” Bruggeman said.
“I want to be the guy they choose to work that most important game.”
Follow Kevin Dudley on Twitter @Dudley7Kevin.