The best sport on the planet, ice hockey, is not without its challenges. One of those challenges is the retaining of on-ice officials, who have been leaving the game at troubling rates over the last few years, particularly since the start of the pandemic. While the issue isn’t solely a hockey problem, baseball and softball administrators across the country have reported similar concerns with keeping umpires on the field, it’s something USA Hockey is taking extremely seriously and working hard to rectify.
“The culture needs to change within the hockey community,” said Dave LaBuda, USA Hockey national referee-in-chief. “When an official, who is already facing demands of family and work, comes into an environment where they aren’t enjoying themselves, it makes it harder to retain them over the long haul. This issue has been growing for a long time. We need to change that.”
At USA Hockey’s Annual Congress in Denver this past June, the game’s first-ever officiating task force shared its early recommendations, following months of research, frequent discussion and some testing of pilot programs within local associations.
This ongoing conversation and collaboration from the highest levels of hockey to the grassroots local level, it is hoped, will lead to smoother processes for new referees joining the ranks and a more fun and less confrontational experience for those currently in the black and white stripes, at rinks from coast to coast.
According to Scott Zelkin, manager of USA Hockey’s junior officiating development program, the task force has been meeting on a weekly basis since November, mostly staying out of the limelight while they conduct their work. Zelkin considers the task force’s efforts a work in progress as they explore five main areas – recruitment, retention, education, communication and legislation.
At Annual Congress, significant work was shared by the task force around the treatment, recruitment and retention of officials. Per Zelkin, the task force’s presentation was one of the most anticipated and best attended at the event.
“We had an hour-long status update at Annual Congress, and it was standing room only in the meeting room,” said Zelkin. “That tells me there’s a lot of interest in what we’re doing.”
Zelkin highlighted some of the topics of discussion from the popular session:
Registration process – The task force, in conjunction with the referees-in-chief, changed some of the requirements of the registration process for officials, including the reduction of tests from two to one, before getting on the ice. “We looked at how can we still meet the obligations to get referees on the ice and make the process less difficult, but also ensure our responsibility to keep the game safe and enforce the rules. We streamlined the process, so instead of going through educational modules and a separate seminar, we now include those modules into the seminar for Level 1 officials. There will be virtual seminar options at all levels, which will be really helpful for officials who are still playing the game. And there’s still an on-ice educational component.”
Mentor program – A key statistic of concern is that the game loses roughly 50% of the nearly 8,000 new officials it sees each year. One way to address this, per Zelkin, is a renewed commitment to a nationwide mentor program, supported by local organizations, that gives new officials someone they can lean on and help them navigate challenges. This would include everything from taking tests to getting games to dealing with issues – so they receive the most positive, constructive experience possible during their first 6-8 games on the ice.
Cross-ice opportunities – The task force believes it’s important to get officials back on the ice for training, and one way to do this is via cross-ice hockey. Zelkin says a lot of associations have gotten away from using officials for cross-ice practices. “USA Hockey has a cross-ice officiating manual,” he said. “We should encourage associations to use younger officials during cross-ice play. It’s a safe space for them, to get on the ice and understand some of the basics without having to call a lot of penalties.”
Coach education – How coaches interact with officials is also important. Zelkin says coaches can now get credits for an officiating option of their continuing education requirement. “They can get three credits by taking a module (class) to help them better understand the rules of the game and respect officials. Coaches can also go through a five-credit module and register to become an official themselves. It can’t be us-versus-them. This is a big step, so coaches can learn what it’s like to be in the skin of an official.”
Spectator reporting system – One program being tested (and in practice in places like Massachusetts) is a parent or spectator reporting system, so if a fan sees another fan abusing an official, there’s a process to report the incident to the association to avoid awkward or uncomfortable conversation.
LaBuda also shared that the task force proposed – and had approved – the addition of a paid, full-time position to the USA Hockey staff, to support the ongoing development of youth officials and help implement and oversee official-related issues at the grassroots local level.
“Any changes that need to be made need to be made at the grassroots level,” LaBuda says. “This can’t be top-down, it has to be a bottom-up solution.”
“One thing that became clear is that the problem isn’t going to be solved by one program alone, it will be solved by the whole of the organization,” Zelkin said. “We’re all in this together. It will take organizations, affiliates, players, coaches and parents to all get on board to fix this. We’re going to continue to work to help younger officials get more opportunities and toward educating the hockey family on the challenges of officiating. I’m biased but I think each of these things is a good step forward.”
LaBuda says the task force will continue digging into issues with a goal of issuing a final report before USA Hockey’s Winter Meetings in January.
“As we’ve explored the depth of the issue, we’ve found that this is fairly complex, so we want to make sure whatever we recommend is not too broad and will include practical approaches to addressing particular problems,” he said. “We have a broad spectrum of membership, so we’re getting many perspectives. We all have a vested interest in making this a better experience.”
Tag(s): Stripes Newsletter