Most youth hockey referees choose to wear the black and white stripes for one of three reasons – to stay involved with a game they love, be part of a fun, enjoyable sports experience and to make a little extra cash.
Unfortunately, as rinks have seen an increase in bad behavior by the adults in the stands, which includes verbal (and in an extremely small number of cases, physical) abuse of the officials, more and more refs are hanging up their whistles, making referee retention a challenging situation for associations around the country.
“The pandemic shined a light on the fact that we’re losing officials, as some didn’t come back after many of the delays and postponements ended, in part due to how they were being treated,” said Bob Mancini, USA Hockey’s Assistant Executive Director of Hockey Development. “The real issue is the environment. We have to try to change the culture of youth hockey so that the players, coaches, spectators and officials are all working together and respecting each other to make the game better. If we do that, it will be more fun for everyone, including the officials.”
What is the problem?
According to USA Hockey President Mike Trimboli, where we’re at today is partly the result of where we’ve been over decades, as a culture existed in society – both real and in the entertainment world – where officials were painted as the “bad guy” or in an adversarial way. On top of that, Trimboli says, “the emotion of fans attending games and events is at an all-time high, which, unfortunately, has led to an increased abuse toward officials across the board in all sports.”
The result? A shortage of officials, and a growing issue the national governing body of the sport is trying to address.
“Officials in any sport are as much of an integral part of the game as the teams that are participating,” Trimboli said. “It can be extremely challenging to see everything from the ice level whether you are a player, coach or official. Each of these entities are likely to make mistakes during the course of a game, but for some unfortunate reason, society chooses to bear the brunt of it on our officials. Officials need to be treated with the same level of respect as anyone would expect for their own child or to receive themselves.”
How is USA Hockey addressing it?
As this season comes to a close, many officials are wondering what’s next, and how these issues are being addressed by those in charge.
In December, USA Hockey announced the commissioning of a new task force of stakeholders consisting of USA Hockey volunteers and staff members, a cross-section of thought-leaders, that would take a deep dive into the issues. The charge of the task force, which meets weekly, is to explore challenges relative to officiating that exist today – recruitment, retention and treatment of officials among them – and work to formulate ideas and processes that provide volunteers across the country with resources and strategies to address those challenges.
Keith Barrett, Vice President of USA Hockey and chair of the organization’s Youth Council, was named chair of the 12-member task force. He outlined the main areas of focus for the group:
Recruitment – this includes barriers to entry or re-entry, such as cost and expectations, as well as the officials’ educational/training track and improving performance
Retention – includes scheduling concerns, abuse, enforcement, accountability
Education – for officials, coaches, players and parents; all need to understand what’s appropriate way to act
Professional Interaction/Communication – game management skills, how to communicate with players and coaches
Legislative Enforcement/Accountability – updates to Rule Book
Barrett, who has himself served as an on-ice official for more than 15 years, says the task force has also reviewed and consulted with other organizations, including in other sports, for ideas. Several pilot programs in select districts have already been implemented, while others are being explored.
“There are some creative programs out there to improve the in-arena environment in youth hockey,” said Barrett. “In Toronto, they’ve had first-year officials wear green arm bands, so fans can more easily identify the younger officials and maybe have more empathy before they start yelling. A lacrosse organization has experimented with having ‘culture keepers’ in the stands at games. Essentially parents taking turns wearing a bright orange vest, helping to calm fans if they get emotional and serve as a reminder for parents to keep their cool. We’ve also talked to a sport psychologist with the USTA to get insight into parental behaviors. We’re looking at everything we can find to help positively change the culture.”
What role do coaches, parents and players play?
Mancini, Trimboli and Barrett all expressed optimism that things will improve, and also that the task of creating change does not fall on one entity. Coaches, parents, players and the officials themselves will all play key roles in being part of the solution.
“Coaches need to focus on having conversations with officials, not confrontations, and players need to show the same respect for officials that they show for their own coaches or opponents,” said Mancini. “Parents should go enjoy the game, cheer for all of the kids, on both teams, and enjoy the competitive spirit that is youth hockey. We’re all passionate about it. But we have to get back to youth sports being about the kids.”
Trimboli seconded that notion.
“While it will be difficult for change to occur in a short amount of time, we will continue our efforts to institute awareness and education working toward that goal. Our task force has made significant strides in the relatively short time they’ve been together, and we’ve already received positive feedback,” he said. “We’re going to continue to offer world-class training and development for our officials and a welcoming environment for anyone who wants to become an official. We will continue to support the work they do and take measures to protect them from abuse. We’ll also continue to educate our coaches as part of our coaching curriculum. Coaches are an integral part of the process when it comes to educating our players. It simply comes down to mutual respect and understanding … and treating others as you would like to be treated.”
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