I watched my grandson go to his first mini-mite experience recently and was reminded just how overwhelming that adventure can be.  He is a pretty quiet, sometimes very shy, five year old.  As he came off the ice his face told the story; equal parts scared, excited and confused.  It reminded me of the first time I stood next to the glass at a hockey arena.  I was fifteen years old and had just been cut from the basketball team.  I vividly remember how bright, loud and fast everything looked.  The puck caromed off the glass like a cannonball and the coach’s whistle cut through the cold with ear piercing clarity.  As a teenager, my senses were over-stimulated and my plan to begin a new adventure as a hockey player was suddenly in doubt. 

My grandson’s mixed emotions made perfect sense to me.  Two days later he went back for more!  And almost fifty years ago, I did too.  On the rink next to us on Saturday I saw an even greater display of bravery, as young officials in training rotated in and out during a squirt tryout scrimmage.  I wondered if these bright eyed apprentices had any idea what they were getting themselves into.  The spotlight they are stepping into is as bright and intimidating as that first mite practice. 

We sometimes forget that there are rules to this game and we need someone, other than parents in the stands, to interpret and enforce those rules.  The rules were established to ensure fairness and the safety of the players.  Contrary to the belief of some they weren’t established to unfairly punish your aspiring youngster.  Play within the rules and it makes their job that much easier and keeps your blood pressure within the recommended range. 

Officials are a necessary part of the game and most would prefer to be seen, but not heard.  I am always amazed at how seldom an NHL official gets in the way; it is as if they are invisible.  The development process begins at a young age and comes with requisite growing pains.  Learning the rules, positioning and confident and decisive decision making doesn’t happen overnight.  Dealing with an irate coach over an offside call isn’t anything a twelve year old official should have to endure.  These young apprentices mean no harm to anyone; they are just trying to learn a craft that right now is in desperate need of numbers.

Youth Official

Veteran official Chris McGuirk agrees that abuse in the form of “the stress of dealing with adults, not acting like adults” is the main culprit in young officials leaving.  According to USA Hockey statistics, fifty percent of officials quit after their first year and the annual attrition rate is thirty-three percent.  “Every ref is at a different level of their development”, said McGuirk.  Just like the players and for that matter the coaches too.

Thankfully, not all referee stories have are unhappy ones.  McGuirk noted, “while it isn’t for everyone, for many it becomes a passion”.  Two former Fox Valley players, Pete Jenkin, Appleton United and AJ Rahm, Neenah are now officiating at the NCAA and USHL levels.   For those who stay in officiating it can become a reliable source of income and for some a career.  The NHL employs about ninety officials and they can make in excess of $200,000 a year.

It is safe to say that I have been behind the bench for hundreds of games.  With all honesty I can say that only one time did I believe the officials played a major role in determining the outcome of a game.  It was a sectional game in 2000, a 6-3 SWS Rails loss to the New Richmond Tigers.  My assistant coach at the time, Pat Savage, an official himself, said following the game, “what we witnessed last night was more than just a loss, it was an injustice”.   In a game that is littered with mistakes by players and coaches alike, one game, in perhaps a thousand, is a pretty good track record for those wearing stripes.  It was a blip on an otherwise steady timeline.

If you watch enough hockey, you will quickly come to the conclusion that virtually every call an official makes will send someone’s arms reaching for the ceiling.  For some, even the most obvious penalties, if called against their team, will be viewed as a bad call.  Officials are truly in a no win situation most of the time.  If it ended when the disgruntled lowered their arms, we would all be able to live with that.  Too often it doesn’t and is followed by yelling, screaming and verbal abuse.  Adults, who know better, who have a child on the ice that has made too many mistakes to calculate as a player, berating an official, who is sometimes the same age or younger.  It is one of youth hockey’s ugliest moments. 

Unlike the objectivity of a stopwatch in track, every call a hockey official has to make is based on his/her subjective opinion of the situation.  That puts every call into subjective purgatory and for those who have the delusional belief that this particular game is a matter of life and death, they are unable to corral their emotions.  I had a former player of mine walk away from officiating after a coach tried to get him fired from his job because of calls he had made in a game.  Sadly, abuse of officials is real; So real that USA Hockey had to institute a “Zero Tolerance Policy” regarding these unacceptable behaviors.  The well-intentioned policy has mostly proven to be problematic to enforce.

When I see a face-painted, jersey wearing fan of a professional sports team detonate  over an official’s call I can accept that this person likely needs some psychological therapy and I understand the official is not in any imminent danger.  When I see a youth/high school hockey parent acting in similar fashion, in addition to the therapy, I see banishment.  Removing them from the game is great, but my experience is it doesn’t change long term behavior. 

After over twenty-five years of experience as a USA Hockey Coaching Education presenter, I “stepped away” this fall.  The decision to replace in-person clinics with a virtual format and my reluctance to adhere to the canned USA PowerPoints ended my run.  As much as I loved presenting and as important as it is for coaches, I believe parent education is an even higher priority.  My lobbying for a Parent Education Program has largely fallen on deaf ears.  I believe it could be an important step in improving behavior towards officials.  Bruce Brown is famous for identifying the four roles of contest: coach, spectator, player and official.  You can only choose one.  So when coaches try to officiate, or players try to coach, or parents do anything other than watch, disaster most often follows.

I have definitely had my unfavorable moments with officials.  I don’t always agree with their calls, but try to understand that we all see the game from slightly different perspectives, emotionally and geographically.  And whether you want to acknowledge that or not it makes a significant difference.  One of my best moments with an official came when I was a bit unhappy with a call and respectfully voiced my opinion.  A few minutes later as the official stood near our bench, he leaned in and told me, “That probably wasn’t one of my best calls”.  I smiled, and said, “It’s ok, I probably had the wrong line on the ice”. 

Mutual respect is based on the fact that we all make mistakes.

If your child has stepped into the limelight of officiating—thank you!  It can be a great opportunity for them to learn decision making, focus, commitment and developing a bit of a hard shell.  All of those traits will be useful and officiating can truly be a lifelong activity.   

So next time you are inclined to yell, “Hey ref, check your voicemail, you missed a few calls,” take a big swig of that Dunkin’ coffee —and check your voice instead.  We will all feel better.

Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI.  You can contact him at  drbauer13@gmail.com

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