HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Not everyone has skin thick enough to be the arbitrator or conciliator during sporting events. As a hockey referee, those might be the nicest names Mike Sutton has ever been called.

A contracting officer with the Expeditionary Contracting Command, Sutton spends some of his free time officiating hockey games in the local area.

"I've always enjoyed ice hockey. I started playing when I was 8 years old," said Sutton, who was raised in Michigan. "There were three of us boys and we basically lived at the rinks in the evening and on weekends during hockey season. We could make extra money being a scorekeeper, and sometimes they would let us officiate the younger hockey players.

"I played from about 8 to 18 years old. Back then we had a required respect of the referees," said Sutton, who left hockey behind and spent the next 25 years concentrating on his career and family. "We may not have always agreed with them but we accepted the outcome and matured from that philosophy. Today, I see a lot of players at all levels, coaches and parents that are demanding near perfection from the officials in all sports. There is not one perfect official out there but they all try to give the best professional performance every time they hit the ice."

Even though Sutton had stopped playing the game, he never stopped loving it.

"I had just moved to Albuquerque, N.M., with my first government job as a contracting specialist," Sutton said. "My family hadn't moved out yet and I needed something to keep me occupied after work and on weekends. I had been umpiring baseball and softball, and there was a newspaper ad looking for ice hockey referees so I gave it a try and fell in love with it all over again."

Since then, Sutton has found himself on ice rinks in and around Alabama and in Germany, officiating at various levels.

"I've officiated youth, high school, college, and semi-professional hockey for the last 14 years," said Sutton, who first wore the zebra-stripes as a 14-year-old stand-in official. "I've also had the opportunity of officiating games in Germany when I was working for the 409th Contracting Support Brigade in Kaiserslautern."

According to Sutton, officials must pass tests every year to determine their officiating level, Levels 1 - 4. Each level requires the referee to be more knowledgeable than the previous level along with spending a certain amount of time on the ice.

"Currently I am back at Level 1 under the USA Hockey Program because I was in Germany for three years and unable to maintain my Level 3 status while overseas," said Sutton, who at one time was also the seminar training director for the state of Alabama.

Sutton isn't just sitting back waiting on re-obtaining his Level 3 status. He currently holds the position of evaluation director for USA Hockey (Alabama).

"The position requires that I evaluate and/or oversee all evaluations for the USA Hockey officials in the state," he said. "The evaluations help the state supervisor and scheduler in placing the correct level officials in the correct games. Further, the evaluations give us a framework on setting up a path for the younger officials to build on their skills and improve them."

The thick-skinned Sutton said hockey has also given him tools he uses in his day-to-day life.

"I tell people all the time that it is easier now to except criticism and feedback because of hockey," he said.

According to Sutton, ice hockey officials work hard to make the sport safe and fair and to place emphasis on the skills aspect of the sport.

"I truly enjoy the sport of hockey and there is the added health benefit of skating 7 to 14 miles each game I work. I find most other methods of working out not as exciting, so I keep skating and refereeing to help keep me in better shape," he said.

"Hockey is a very fast-paced sport. Officials make calls while skating and no two plays or situations are the same. What a fan sees from the stands can be a much different view of what the official on the ice can see and is interpreted by the officials," Sutton said.

Sutton said how fans tend to react to officials is similar to a two-headed coin.

"At any given time during a hockey game, half the fans, and players, are not happy with my performance, and the other half is only somewhat pleased until a call doesn't go their team's way. As an official, you just have to be ready to be criticized."