No one has ever said that officiating, and especially officiating ice hockey, was easy. Rule knowledge, communication skills, fitness, skating and a natural presence are just some of the skills necessary to be a successful official. Some possess more of these skills than others and those are the officials who advance to higher levels. But regardless of the level achieved or the skill set the official possesses, the one quality that should be equal among every official is a high level of integrity.
The officiating program leadership has heard growing concerns over a decreasing level of integrity among our grassroots hockey officials. Most everyone now accepts that newer officials working the youngest levels will make mistakes. However, some of our more experienced officials who have advanced onto the more competitive levels of youth hockey should not have that same luxury. It’s sometimes said that no one is holding them accountable. A portion of this perception is likely a typical “blame the officials” mentality, but some anecdotal evidence suggests there is also some merit to this concern. That’s alarming to USA Hockey, as it affects the credibility of our entire program, along with every member it represents. The blunt truth is this: even one official who isn’t on the up and up can and will damage the credibility of all officials who do take pride in the integrity of their work.
Whether we like it or not, officials are under a microscope, and by the nature of the business, are held to a very high standard. When we signed up for this officiating gig, we committed ourselves to represent the game of hockey, USA Hockey, our local group of officials and ourselves as people of integrity who accept the responsibility and guardianship of enforcing the rules in a fair and consistent manner. Most importantly, we must remember that the game is bigger than all of us and that the game itself is what we serve. Those who lose sight of that not only compromise the competitive fairness of the games, they also make life more difficult for all of the officials by damaging the credibility of the officiating community.
One example of this type of unacceptable behavior is when officials abuse their power or hide behind the Zero Tolerance Policy as a means to NOT have to communicate or even have knowledge of certain rules. Although an official is not expected to be perfect, and there will always be opportunities to have disagreeing opinions on a judgment play, when it comes to proper application of the rules such as a face-off location, penalty termination or coincidental penalties the official does not have a valid excuse for a misapplication of the rule and especially at some of the older or more competitive levels of play.
When it is suggested by a captain or a coach in a respectful manner that the rule application may be incorrect, the official compounds the problem by refusing to communicate or immediately assessing an abuse of official penalty. Although a face-off location may not seem like a big deal, in a competitive game the difference between an attack zone face-off and one at center ice is significant, as well as situations where on-ice strength is negatively affected by misapplication of the rules. In either instance, the official is NOT serving the game and failure to properly apply the rules or refusing to effectively communicate, citing the Zero Tolerance Policy, does have an impact on the competitive nature of the game.
Fortunately, these types of officials are few and far between. But they do exist and to simply stick our heads in the sand and not address the concern is irresponsible. Each of us, as officials, has an obligation to behave in a professional manner at all times and take our role seriously. This level of accountability is even more critical as USA Hockey creates an awareness and implements initiatives to improve the “culture” of youth hockey and provide a better environment in which officials can work. We have made a commitment to approach each game with the understanding that the game is about the players and we should be invisible until the players require us to appear as a result of infractions that occur. Respect is a two-way street and simply putting on the sweater with the USA Hockey crest suggests respect is warranted, but only if supported by your actions.
USA Hockey has an obligation to create a non-threatening environment that promotes respect for officials and an opportunity for officials to improve through education and evaluation. USA Hockey does this through playing rules, points of emphasis, zero tolerance policies and comprehensive education programs for officials, coaches, parents and players.
In return, the game expects USA Hockey officiating members to bring a professional image to every contest and an attitude that creates a positive environment and makes the game better. We realize everyone makes mistakes – it’s part of the game. However, laziness or unprofessional behavior is unacceptable and being creative in rule enforcement and not holding players/coaches accountable for infractions will only make the next team of officials’ jobs much more difficult and set them up for failure.
The reality is that the game official must always hold themselves to the highest level of integrity and behavior both on and off the ice. Maybe that’s fair, or maybe not, but it is the expectation we are required to meet.
As we head into the last portion of the 2022-23 season, ask yourself if you are willing to meet that expectation. If the answer is yes, we are glad to have you on our team and finish the season strong.