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The Last Call

By Dan Bauer, Contributor, 03/11/24, 9:30PM CDT


Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in Lockroom Logic are solely those of Dan Bauer and do not reflect the opinions of Wisconsin Prep Hockey or its partners. Dan presents his opinions based upon his lifetime of teaching and coaching experience and we present them unedited.

When you know, you know.

According to coaching mentor Bruce Brown, there are four roles at every athletic competition. You can be a player, a coach, an official or a fan. But you can only be one. The best, yet most ignored advice since Noah built the Ark.

I have officially been a player, a coach and a fan. In each of those roles you are deeply invested in the outcome and the game will be seen through the eyes of two different perspectives. As the puck ricochets, so will these opposing perspectives and in between the men in stripes are required to find the truth. With coaches, fans and players bending both ears, they maintain order and purpose to our games. 

Good officials, like good deeds, go mostly unnoticed.

A few weeks ago, one of high school hockey’s finest and most likeable officials, Tony Stemberger, took off the skates for the last time. After thirty-two years, nearly two-thousand games, and thirteen WIAA state tournaments, the legend from Brookfield realized it was time to be done. After unofficially retiring at the end of last season, Stemberger, in his own words, “pulled a Favre” and came back this winter. After a lighter schedule of games on his return he couldn’t find that familiar spark. “Being back on the ice was ok,” Stemberger said, “not great, not fun, just ok.” 

When you know, you know.

The fifty-nine-year-old native of Milwaukee has been on the hockey rink since he was a child. He played the majority of his youth hockey with Waukesha and won a WAHA State Championship in 1982 as a senior. After a short stint in the USHL, he played four years of club hockey with his twin brothers, Mike and Mark, at UW-Whitewater. After college, playing for the Milwaukee Flyers of the Great Lakes League, his coach Skip Semandel told him, “You know Tony, you’d be a good ref, because you have done everything on the ice as a player. You would know what to look for as a ref!” 

Stemberger took the advice of that backhanded compliment and began his career as a WIAA official.

I have always tried to keep officials off my radar as much as possible. I figured if I wasn’t willing to walk a mile in their skates, and I wasn’t, I shouldn’t be criticizing their performance. Secondly, I have seldom seen a referee reverse a call, a nightmare at the NCAA Women’s D-III quarterfinals in St. Thomas notwithstanding. And lastly, I am a terrible referee—based on my own limited experience. 

Every official sets a tone as soon as they hit the ice for pre-game warm-ups. There is a distinct vibe from how they carry themselves, how they greet you on the bench and how they run their captain’s meeting. For me they fall into three categories, one, those who simply don’t belong out there due to any number of shortcomings from skating to rampant inconsistency, angry demeanors and indifference. Two, those who command the ice surface with their arrogance and desire to be the main attraction. And three, those that are friendly, seem truly happy to be there and want nothing more than for the players to determine the outcome.

Tony Stemberger was the epitome of door number three. When Tony said if you have any questions during the game he would be happy to discuss them with you, he meant it. In his career, Tony never ejected a coach from a game. “We are all fallible,” Stemberger proclaimed. “I was open to criticism and discussion. Calming and communicating is part of the officiating process.”  When coaches cross the line, it can lead to embarrassing encounters. In those escalating situations Stemberger often helped protect the coach. “I am right here,” he would say. “The crowd doesn’t need to hear this conversation.”

Stemberger is grateful for those mentors who taught him the ropes of officiating. Guys who became friends like Al Williamson, Jim Palmer, Skip Semandel and Wayne Caufield. At his first state tournament, his crew, Karl Ohm and Eric Mather convinced him that there was an inspection he had to pass before he could officiate the game. Stemberger’s roller hockey shin pads, held together by duct tape certainly wouldn’t pass. In the end the WIAA’s Bill Spohn couldn’t pull off the gag, but they all had a good laugh about it.

Fittingly, those shin pads remained intact throughout the career of one of the state’s most amicable officials.

Tony’s thirteen WIAA state tournaments are a testament that he got it right more often than not. There should have been more trips to Madison, but that is a story for another time. He sincerely appreciated the confidence coaches had in his officiating, “Just always a great reward,” (State Tournament appointments) he explained. “Recognition and solid rankings from the coaches for calling the game the way it was supposed to be called.” 

Over the years Stemberger has worked with hundreds of officials including Bryce Maphis, who Stemberger called, “Knowledgeable, a great skater and always in control of the game.”  As for his college roommate and fellow UW-Whitewater teammate, Dan Dineen, he praised as, “A very solid ref and one of the best skaters I have seen on the ice.” 

During one of his final games, USM head coach Dan Carey arranged a special acknowledgement for Stemberger during the first period. A fitting tribute to a man who has given so much to Wisconsin hockey. He was sincerely touched by the gesture, “I did everything in my power to not lose it on the ice, but it was truly special.” Later in that same game, the Stoughton coaches were chirping Stemberger about what they had to do to get a powerplay. In true “Stemmy” fashion he fired back, “Well I guess you have to give me a sendoff like USM did in the first period!” It was that sense of humor and just being a regular guy, that made us all smile.

Stemberger will still have his fingers in the game as he will continue to schedule WIAA officials for the Milwaukee area and also serves as commissioner for the Eastern Shores Conference.

Sometimes we get to see the end coming and prepare for it. For Tony he knew heading into this season that it would indeed be his last. “Being in ice rinks for fifty-five years is hard and very hard on my lungs,” said Stemberger, who deals with asthma. “I am saddened that I won’t have the interaction with the players, coaches and fellow refs, but I am happy and excited to search out some new adventures.” He continued, “I will always look back and remember all of these moments in the timeline of my life as so incredibly satisfying!”

Here’s hoping life after officiating treats Tony Stemberger as well as he treated the game of hockey and all the players, coaches and fans he touched over the past thirty years. When Tony stepped on the ice there was a pretty good chance it was going to be a “great day for hockey”. 

Every high school hockey coach knows we can’t afford to lose quality officials. Simply stated, Tony made the game better for all of us. And as he makes his final call, from all of us, a strong handshake and a heartfelt “nice game and Thank You!” 

And one thing I know we know, you will be missed. 

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Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at

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