For many officials, the disabled hockey space is one that is often left unexplored, but provides a fun and challenging opportunity for officials to gain experience. Disabled hockey, which includes a variety of disciplines such as special hockey, warrior hockey, sled hockey, deaf/hard of hearing hockey, standing amputee hockey and blind hockey, has its own unique barriers when it comes to officials, making it a challenge at times for this immensely valuable branch of the ice hockey world to find dedicated, quality referees for its many leagues and events across the country. It is competitive hockey, just like any other level, and deserves top coaching and officiating.
Brad Roethlisberger, Disabled Section Referee-in-Chief, and his colleagues at USA Hockey are passionate about the sport and working hard to make this a reality. Roethlisberger has been in his current position officially for about eight years and has decades of experience officiating hockey at various levels, including at the Sled Hockey World Championships in 2008. He has also coached disabled hockey and even helped develop Wisconsin’s first sled hockey team.
“Whether we’re talking about able-bodied players or our disabled players, I truly believe all deserve the best officials on the ice,” Roethlisberger said.
Initiatives in action
USA Hockey has a variety of opportunities for young or novice officials to hone their craft, develop their skills and get exposure to different specialties in the game. USA Hockey Officiating Development Camps are used to identify and prepare officials for the various levels of competition.
USA Hockey's disabled hockey program provides many opportunities for officials to gain experience within the aforementioned disciplines, and a number of large events such as the Disabled Hockey Festival, the largest hockey event of its kind. Other events include the Disabled Hockey Workshop and discipline-specific Classics.
“At the end of June we will have what’s called a Sled Hockey Futures Camp, that teaches the nuances of the Sled game,” Roethlisberger said. “We’ve been running this in conjunction with the player development program for Sled hockey for 5-6 years now. It’s a weeklong camp in New Jersey where all get exposed to classroom settings, participating in practices and toward the end of the week, working the games and getting feedback from fellow officials who have experience working in the discipline. We use the camps as a tool to train, but also to potentially identify future candidates for higher level, or international assignments."
“A lot of the disciplines in the fall and spring will have their own festival or classic event, where it will be a weekend of games that we can use as training grounds as well,” he added. “Those won’t necessarily have the off-ice components, but they’ll be working games and getting feedback working those games.”
Roethlisberger suggests that interested officials check out the USA Hockey website for more information, and also explore their local associations for opportunities to get involved.
A rewarding experience
Roethlisberger remains optimistic that officiating in disabled hockey will continue to improve moving forward. A main reason for this is that the many positives of participation outweigh the existing negatives.
“If we get them out on the ice, they’re hooked, so the biggest thing is getting them out there to try an event,” he says. “I would say just be open-minded about it."
According to Roethlisberger, the disabled hockey world has grown tremendously over the past 15 years, with more and more countries recognizing and providing opportunities for disabled athletes to get on the ice. He believes the success of the U.S. Men’s National Sled Hockey Team has likely increased participation numbers in the United States. With that growing popularity comes opportunity, for players, coaches and officials alike.
“Adults and youth that never thought they would have the opportunity to play hockey now see they have opportunities to play,” he said. “Local clubs are popping up all around us. Not only has the recognition of the sport grown, but the caliber of talent has as well. Officials that want to build their officiating resume and officiating flexibility can and should get involved in the disabled disciplines. I might be biased but I get more pleasure and joy working a disabled game than I do with many other stand-up games.”
The biggest task? Simply getting the word out about what a great experience officiating disabled hockey can be.
“Disabled hockey is pure hockey,” Roethlisberger said. “Whether you’re talking about youth or adult, they’re out there for the pure joy of the game. And the players have so much appreciation for the officials that we take the games as seriously as we should. For them, it’s a serious game. They’re trying to compete, and I know it gets frustrating for the athletes if the officials don’t carry the same mindset. Most of the men and women that have officiated one of our games say it’s so much fun, the players are so nice and appreciate us. And that’s what the sport should be about.”