The pandemic has led to officials shortages all around the country in youth hockey. But there’s more to it than that. Some officials have stopped working because of incidents of abuse hurled at them. Massachusetts has had a few high-profile incidents, according to Bob Joyce, president of Massachusetts Hockey who’s been involved in youth hockey for more than 20 years.
That got the USA Hockey officiating task force thinking.
“In order to try and provide another tool in the toolbox, we developed what we call a referee, parent/spectator abuse reporting system,” Joyce said. “It’s similar to ‘see something, say something.’”
This system is in place to deal with, for example, parents in the stands heckling an official, screaming profanities. Some physical instances are fewer and far between, according to Joyce. Most of the incidents are verbal, shouting at officials.
The portal is about creating awareness regarding parent and spectator conduct, too, Joyce said. Parent expectations or the standard parents want to see can sometimes be too high, he added.
“I think a lot of times people watch the NHL or the NCAA and they think that officials out there should be the same quality,” Joyce said. “When, for the most part, they’re just regular people, just like the coaches, who are out there trying to give back to the game to give the kids an opportunity to play. They’re not professionals. It’s a side job for a lot of them.”
Many times, people don’t realize that officials might be experienced hockey players but newer to officiating and still learning the process, according to George Atkinson, affiliate president for Michigan who’s also on the USA Hockey executive committee.
“I think people have an expectation that because they get paid to officiate, that these people are all professionals, they’ve been doing this a while and they know all the ins and outs,” Atkinson said. “And that’s not really true.”
With this reporting system, anyone else in the arena who observes the incident can report it without getting directly involved by confronting the person, according to Joyce. The reporter can send in a description of the incident through the online portal including the names of teams playing in the game, locations, level of hockey and description of the incident. Any video of the incident can also be submitted.
Once it’s submitted, the committee takes that information to the member programs and league presidents for them to handle the issues with a “self-policing kind of method,” Joyce said.
“It allows parents an opportunity to submit information about unacceptable behavior and trying to create a better atmosphere in the rinks for our officials, and for everyone, for that matter,” Joyce said.
For the most part though, any issues have been handled at the local league levels.
This reporting system was developed in Massachusetts hockey and shared with other affiliate presidents in other states, with some of them adopting it, according to Joyce.
This was just one piece of the newly formed USA Hockey officiating task force.
In September, Massachusetts saw an officiating crisis with a lack of officials coming back to the game out of the pandemic. It started many discussions there and nationwide about the decline in the number of officials in all sports, according to Joyce. They were down 40-50% of officials when a public statement was issued in October regarding the officials shortage. They’re short officials in Michigan, too, according to Atkinson.
“Not to the point where we’ve had to cancel too many games,” Atkinson said. “But Michigan is an area that hosts a lot of invitational tournaments due to our proximity to Canada.”
The problem of the decline in the number of officials and the abuse are very real problems, Atkinson added.
“It’s something that we have to get our arms around,” Atkinson said. “A lot of young officials don’t want to deal with that. It’s not fun for them.”
As a result of those discussions, the 12-person officiating committee made up of folks in various aspects of USA Hockey was formed in November with the purpose to reviewing everything related to officiating. They meet weekly to discuss things related to how officiating affects hockey.
The group looks at what it can do to retain and recruit new officials or past officials who may have left the game, Joyce said.
The decline in officials and the abuse of officials are intertwined issues the task force dug into. They wanted to look into the reasons for the overall decline in the number of officials out there. Abuse is one of the factors, along with the education requirements for officials and access to games.
“Abuse may have been the initial first idea,” Joyce said. “But as we dive deeper, we find that there are other issues in other areas that need to be looked into and then, can we make them better or more accessible, so that we can keep and retain our officials.”
It may seem simple and obvious, but without officials, hockey players can’t play games. The officials are out there to manage a safe game for all involved, and the task force is set to help with that.
“It’s repairing the relationship,” Joyce said. “I think it’s developing respect. I think at some point along the way, we lost a little focus as far as the officials’ involvement in the game.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.