Like so many pioneers in the game, Kevin Collins is proud of the past.
So as the keynote speaker at the inaugural USA Hockey Advanced Officiating Symposium in 2019, the hall of fame official spent the first half of his speech paying homage to those who helped usher in the early days of officiating education.
But suddenly the legendary NHL linesman shifted gears and challenged those in attendance to look to the future by protecting the next generation of officials from the verbal and physical abuse from parents and coaches.
Sitting idly by and watching the mass exodus of talented young whistle blowers could not only risk the next generation of promising officials, but could plunge the future of the game into uncertainty.
Collins was a long-time NHL linesman who was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2017.
“The past is positive, but the present and the future are not quite as rosy,” said Collins, who was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2017.
“Abuse by coaches and parents is taking its toll on young and old officials alike. This is not a regional issue but a national one.”
To help stem the tide of officials leaving the game, Collins called on the 250 high-level officials in attendance at the symposium to take matters into their own hands by providing support and serving as mentors to those just starting out in the game.
“I’m asking you to do your part to help save our game and the future of it,” Collins implored the crowd. “I’m asking you to take this message back to your local associations and convince your leagues to reach out to coaches and parents and to hold them accountable.”
Over the course of his illustrious career, Collins was a pioneer in the development of officiating education. He helped create the first officiating school in the U.S., along with summer development camps and its officiating manual series, both of which remain core components of USA Hockey’s Officiating Development Program.
In addition to his time with USA Hockey, Collins worked more than 2,000 NHL games as a linesman, and his 296 games in the Stanley Cup playoffs are the most by an American official.
Even after years removed from the game, Collins keeps a close eye on what’s going on in the sport, and what he sees has caused him considerable distress.
He said that most local officiating programs help young officials navigate the ever-increasing negativity being directed at them from the bench and the stands. It’s when they leave the ice that there have been an increasing number of confrontations with irate parents that are driving many into thinking that officiating is not worth the aggravation.
“We all have heard stories of officials being confronted by irate parents as they leave the ice after a game, whether it’s a game at 6 in the morning or 6 at night,” Collins said. “You need to be there for them. You need to take care of these young officials.”
Collins cited situations where local tournaments around the country have had to scale back on the number of games they can hold for lack of qualified officials. This is not a hockey problem but something that is plaguing so many youth sports.
Dennis LaRue has seen that firsthand. After retiring as an NHL referee in 2016, LaRue became the president of the Spokane American Youth Hockey Association. Youth hockey organizations all across the country spend a lot of time recruiting and training young referees. And when they leave the game due to the verbal abuse heaped upon them, it starts the cycle all over again.
“When we recruit kids and we get them involved, that’s a win for everybody,” LaRue said. “But when we lose them because they’re sick and tired of being yelled at or berated, that’s a loss for everybody because we have to start off with a new recruit who has to go through the same learning curve that a youngster who already has a year or two under his or her belt. We already have time and energy invested in that person and when they walk away you have to start all over again.”
According to USA Hockey registration data, 33 percent of all registered officials leave the game each year, and almost 50 percent of first-year officials don’t return for their second season. The main reasons they cite are local politics that keep them from getting enough games, and the constant berating from coaches and parents.
“We really have to step back and recognize the referee is out there is learning the game just like the players are learning the game,” said Andy McElman, another retired NHL linesman who is still active in the game in his hometown of Chicago.
“We have to step back and appreciate that when these referees step on the ice, that is their practice. That’s the only time they get to get better at the craft of officiating whereas the players may have one or two practices throughout the week and play games on the weekend.”
USA Hockey has long prided itself as the gold standard among youth sports organizations. And now is the time for the organization and those in it to help reign in the insanity that is impacting the entire sporting community.
“This is not a hockey problem. This is a youth sports and societal problem,” Collins said. “So, let’s be the first to be a leader in youth sports and show soccer, baseball and basketball that we are determined to take a stand against the bullying of young officials.”