When he was blowing a whistle on the ice, Joe Ernst was known as a referee every player knew what to expect from. He was consistent shift to shift, period to period and game to game.
Now, he's gotten the same reputation as the ECHL's vice president of hockey operations. As the dean of discipline, his rulings on suspensions are consistent and fair.
The penalty process starts after a game when Ernst is alerted by the league statisticians if there have been any major penalties that carry automatic game misconducts or match penalties. Those fouls are automatically reviewed.
Ernst will download the video and look at it before going to bed, running through the criteria he considers.
``Was there a penalty called?'' Ernst said. ``Who was the offending player? Is the other player injured? Was it intentional? Did he catch the player in a bad spot, or was the player putting himself into a bad spot?''
He won't make any decisions until the morning.
If there's a play that was not penalized that a coach wants reviewed, it's his responsibility to alert Ernst by text, email or phone call by noon local time the next day. Asking for a review costs a team $100, but that fee is returned if the appeal results in a fine or a suspension.
Some teams use the appeal process a great deal, and others not at all.
So far this season, the Komets have only lost three players to suspensions, as Brent Henley, Kaleigh Schrock and Daniel Maggio have served one game each.
When a play is up for review, Ernst will also get comments from ECHL Director of Hockey Operations Jeff Zavatsky. ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna is always aware of any suspensions.
Ernst will also consult with other people in the hockey world he respects.
``Some of them are easy, where we say, `OK, that guy should be sitting for a couple of games,' '' Ernst said. ``The other ones, there times where it can take a few hours. You think about it, you get all your ducks in a row, and you look and see if the player has a history of this. Is this his first time.''
Ernst said he has histories of every player in the league as far back as 2000, but he's primarily concerned with recent history. There's usually not much point in holding an incident from six or seven years ago against a player who hasn't had a major incident since.
Under the best circumstances, Ernst can let the coaches know of his ruling by the time they are coming off the ice from morning skates. That allows the coach to set up his lineup for that night's game or make a call-up for another player if necessary.
If Ernst needs more time, he'll announce a player is going to receive an indefinite suspension until he can make a ruling. That means the player is going to at least miss that night's game. If a player is facing a major suspension, Ernst likes to talk to the coach and the player personally.
``I want to see what they were thinking,'' Ernst said. ``A lot of times when I have talked to the players it's been good because we walk them through the process. They give their side, and there hasn't been a player who has given me grief. They apologize. It's been really good as far as that goes. It's helped.''
Unlike the Central Hockey League where the Komets played the last two seasons, the ECHL does not have an appeals process for players to protest a ruling.
The goal is to maintain the same standards and practices throughout the playoffs. Over the last two seasons, all but one playoff game has had a supervisor present, Ernst said. Their job is partially to hold meetings with coaches the morning before games and with the on-ice officials in the afternoon. They will inform officials of past incidents during a series and any trends that need attention.
The one golden rule is that coaches are not permitted to call Ernst after games to complain about officials. They can call the next morning, which usually is enough time to allow the coach to cool off a little.
``The way I look at it, there's going to be discipline because guys are going to get caught in certain spots and that's just the game of hockey,'' Ernst said. ``I've told people I have the best job in hockey: I get to run hockey operations and run the officiating. If you are a hockey junkie, and I am, what better thing is there than to get up in the morning and talk and work hockey.''