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Bridging The Divide Between Coaches And Officials

By Harry Thompson, 07/28/19, 8:15AM MDT

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Addressing the relationship between coaches and officials during second day of Advanced Officiating Symposium

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. – The Hatfields and the McCoys. Cats and dogs. Hockey coaches and referees. Some things just don’t seem to go together.

That doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. We can fix a lot of what ails us as a society and a sport if we could just be “better humans.”

That was the message from a panel discussion aimed at addressing the often contentious relationship between bench bosses and the men and women in stripes during the second day of the inaugural USA Hockey Advanced Officiating Symposium.

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The panel featured three people with long histories in the game, including American Development Model regional manager Guy Gosselin, USA Hockey’s National Coach-in-Chief Mike MacMillan, and long-time official Don Adam. They were joined on stage by moderator Joy Johnston, referee-in-chief for Ice Hockey United Kingdom, who was hoping to stoke a spirited debate.

Instead, all three members of the panel were on the same page when it came to offering solutions to bridging the chasm between coaches and officials. It comes down to a few basic ideas centered around communication and respect.

“It’s a simple thing and it’s common sense, even though that doesn’t seem to be quite so common these days,” said Gosselin, who is one of the first American Development Model regional managers in addition to coaching the U.S. Sled Hockey Team to a gold medal at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games.

“It’s about being a good human.”

And that means starting the hockey game off on the right foot by bringing officials and coaches together to have a friendly conversation that can set the tone for the game.

“It can be about anything and everything. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about the game. If you do that you’re getting off to a good start,” said Adam, who is the director of officials for the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

“And don’t be afraid to smile. You just might get one back.”

As was mentioned by long-time NHL linesman Kevin Collins in his keynote speech to open the symposium, the berating of young officials by coaches and parents has spurred a mass exodus from the game for the next generation of officials, and bringing with it serious ramifications for the future of the game.

MacMillan has had his fair share of disagreements with officials over the course of his long career as a coach at many levels of Minnesota hockey. But he has always tried to maintain a level of decorum when it comes to dealing with disputes.

“Despite being in the heat of battle you have to be respectful. That’s why developing a relationship with officials before and after the game is important,” said MacMillan, who is an assistant coach with the Div. III college program at Hamline University.

“But it goes both ways. Coaches expect referees to work hard and be professional, just as officials expect coaches to treat them with respect.”

From the official’s standpoint, it’s equally important to answer any questions or address any concerns without turning the conversation into a debate about a rule interpretation or judgment call.

“It’s important that officials keep the lines of communication open and try to be patient with coaches,” Adam said. “Try to understand why a coach might be upset and be mindful of the game situation and scenario.”

Body language can play a big part in ratcheting up the temperature on a heated situation. Coaches complain that officials often show indifference and arrogance when questioned about a call, and officials have an issue with coaches looking down from the top of the boards and yelling at them.

“It’s all about the tone of your voice. You don’t need to be condescending,” Gosselin said. “Everybody is out there trying to do the best job that they can.”

One idea that could help coaches gain a greater appreciation of the challenges that officials face is to have them slip on the stripes and officiate a couple games. Some associations have even discussed the idea of having older players officiating games at the younger age levels to not only gain a better understanding of the rules but to see the game from a different perspective.

“It helps them have a better understanding of what it’s like to skate in our skates,” Adam said.

MacMillan recalled doing just that as a kid growing up in Duluth.

“We used to go into the warming shed, put on a striped jersey and go out and work a Mite and Squirt game,” he said. “It was a great way to give back to the game.”

Sometimes the answers to some of life’s biggest problems can be found in simple solutions. All three members of the panel said it all comes down to the pretty basic concepts of respecting one another and, most importantly, respecting the game. 

“We’re all out there trying to do the best we can do,” Gosselin said. “But at the end of the game, it’s about shaking hands and buying each other a cold beverage, because no one is bigger than the game.”

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