Shandor Alphonso was slightly out of breath when he picked up the phone. He was just finishing up a workout in the gym. As an NHL lineman, keeping fit is just part of his job.
“If I’m not in shape, I’m getting in the way. It’s that simple,” Alphonso said. “The game is so fast now. You’ve got guys like Connor McDavid and they go from zero to 100 in a second, so if our guys are out of shape, we’re disrupting the play.”
Alphonso has always taken his fitness seriously, especially when he was playing hockey for the Sudbury Wolves and later for Lakehead University, but it’s become even more important now that he is an NHL official.
“If I’m even a little bit slower, I’m getting in the way and affecting the game,” he added.
Alphonso keeps up his intense workout regimen while on the road, and when the hotel gym equipment doesn’t cut it, he’ll often seek out CrossFit gyms, his workout of choice. Even on game days, Alphonso will still be in the gym for a lighter workout.
“I still get in the gym because you kind of have to keep your body loose otherwise everything tightens up and you can’t skate as well.”
Before making his way into the NHL as a linesman, Alphonso was a hard-nosed winger for the Wolves in the early 2000s. When he thinks back to his time in Sudbury, he remembers how packed the arena was and how loud the fans were.
“The game was quite a bit different back then, there were a lot of fights. We had some tough teams,” he said. “I always remember in the dressing room we’d say, ‘Saturday night in Sudbury, where else would you rather be?’
Following his time with the Wolves, the Orangeville native went to study at Lakehead University and continued playing hockey with the Thunderwolves varsity club. Just before his final year, the NHL invited him to the league’s Amateur Exposure Combine, where former players can learn about career opportunities in officiating.
It was an eye-opening experience. Alphonso had been working part-time for the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) in Thunder Bay, was preparing for a career in finance. But after spending two nights in Toronto at the Combine, he discovered he could still have a future in hockey.
After returning to Thunder Bay, Alphonso played his fifth, and final, season with the Thunderwolves and completed his MBA. He aimed to get closer to home after graduation and eventually transferred to the RBC branch in Barrie, where he worked as an account manager for a year or so before he made his way back to Orangeville.
Back in his hometown, Alphonso became a financial advisor for RBC, where he specialized in retirement and investment planning. As Alphonso settled into his new role at the bank, he started officiating for the Ontario Minor Hockey Association.
Following his first season as a linesman, he was hired by the Ontario Hockey League.
“Obviously with me playing there it helped me big time,” he said. “I didn’t have a ton of experience, but I could skate, and I knew the game. They gave me a shot.”
After working for the OHL for three years, the NHL came calling again. Alphonso went to the Exposure Combine in the summer of 2014 and was hired two weeks later.
The biggest adjustment Alphonso recalled from transitioning from junior hockey to the pro ranks is the speed and the strength of the players. “I was basically going from teens to men,” he said.
But the most considerable difference for him was actually when he went back and forth between officiating games for the NHL and the American Hockey League. “When I first got hired by the NHL, they had cleaned up the game and there wasn’t as much fighting, but the American League, there was still a ton of fighting and line brawls,” he said. “I remember my first seven games in the American League, I had three line brawls.”
Alphonso, however, didn’t mind one bit. “I’m a grinder at heart, always will be. I used to throw big hits and loved dropping the gloves once and a while, so it was always fun for me to jump in there and break it up,” he said.
One of the great things about Alphonso’s career path to NHL officiating is how it has reconnected him with some of his former opponents and teammates.
“It’s kind of cool now in my job seeing guys who I used to play against and even a couple guys I played with,” he said. “Still seeing Marc Staal, once in a while when I do Rangers games. It’s kind of cool being able to say I’ve played with him. He’s had a really great NHL career.”
After recently working back-to-back games in southern California, Alphonso spent a day off working out before heading off to Vegas. After officiating a Golden Knights game, he went back to Los Angeles for another matchup. After another day off, but one that once again was spent in the gym, he worked a game in Denver before returning home.
Although that kind of road trip is unusually heavy, Alphonso typically works two to four games a week during the season, which is why it’s so important for him to remain in top physical condition.
With the NHL All-Star break fast approaching, Alphonso is looking forward to some time at home with his family, especially after returning from that particularly gruelling trip out west.
As a father to young children, Alphonso tries to be a role model in every aspect of his life, but he understands the responsibility he carries to represent himself well in the hockey world. Alphonso is currently the only black official in the NHL and hopes to be an example for others to follow.
“I remember growing up and knowing how important it was for me to see people who looked like me playing the game,” he said. “Players like Anson Carter and Mike Grier inspired me.”
When Alphonso began considering a career in officiating, he drew inspiration from linesman Jay Sharrers, the league’s first black official.
“Jay was in the league a long time before I came up. I was watching the NHL and I’d see him on TV,” Alphonso said. “It was huge for me seeing someone who looked like me and knowing that if they could do it, I could absolutely do it, too.”
He hopes to continue down Sharrers’ path and be that source of inspiration for young black hockey players watching today’s game. Every time Alphonso puts on his uniform, he knows his duties include more than calling a good game.
“I try to work hard and conduct myself professionally – if I can inspire one kid that says ‘I look like that guy and if he can do it, I can do it,’” he said. “If I can inspire one kid within my career to go after their dreams, then I feel like I’ve done my job.”