Growing the sport of hockey in the United States is no small task and requires a total team effort. Just as important as the players hitting the ice, are the men and women with the whistles who make it possible for games to happen in the first place.
Recruiting and retaining officials across the country are unique challenges and require hard work and even some creativity to make advancements in both areas.
So, while USA Hockey and local associations from coast to coast have experienced success with “Try Hockey for Free” programs for players, one district had the foresight to apply a similar concept to introduce future referees to the on-ice experience.
Gary Cutler, USA Hockey’s New York West Section Referee-in-Chief, shared about his district’s new initiative, how it came to be and its potential impact on the sport.
USA Hockey: What are the goals of the Try Officiating for Free initiative?
Cutler: The Try Officiating for Free initiative offers a chance to experience officiating without any financial commitment. Moreover, it aims to introduce 14–18-year-olds to the officiating world, have them enjoy the experience and increase the number of officials available. Additionally, the program provides an in-person Q&A session to those who participate to spark an interest in officiating.
USA Hockey: Who are you trying to impact?
Cutler: The program initially targeted youth hockey players, but with increased advertising and word of mouth, it attracted not only youth players but also adult players looking to see if they would like to try officiating.
USA Hockey: Where did the idea for the initiative come from
Cutler: The Try Officiating for Free initiative was born out of the collective efforts of a group of experienced officials and administrators in New York, who noticed a decline in the number of referees joining their ranks. Concerned about the future of officiating, we decided to create an opportunity for individuals to try officiating without any financial commitment. The goal was to encourage people to pursue officiating as a potential career or hobby by providing them with a safe and supportive environment to learn and hone their skills. By offering this program, we hoped to bring new talent into the world of officiating and ensure that the tradition continues for years to come.
USA Hockey: What are the specific details?
Cutler: The Try Officiating for Free Initiative for USA Hockey offers a chance to try it out for free. This program is open to individuals 14 years of age and older. The initiative is available at various locations across New York state.
USA Hockey: Why is a program like this so important to the officiating landscape in New York, but also in general?
Cutler: The Try Officiating for Free program is a valuable addition to the officiating landscape in New York and beyond as it offers individuals a low-risk chance to experience officiating and potentially discover a new passion or career path. Encouraging more people to become officials can lead to a more diverse and inclusive officiating community, enhancing the quality of officiating and making the sport more enjoyable for all involved.
USA Hockey: What is your role with the initiative?
Cutler: I work with a group of hockey people who share the passion for refereeing. We are trying to promote officiating and to recruit new officials into the sport.
USA Hockey: Would you like to see other associations follow New York's lead and see programs like this pop up across the country?
Cutler: It's encouraging to see New York implementing this initiative. Other districts should consider implementing similar programs to promote officiating and increase the number of officials that would be involved in sport.
USA Hockey: What are the main challenges facing the officiating landscape today? Are interest, participation and retention among them?
Cutler: Officiating has been facing several challenges. Among these challenges, the lack of respect, time, and retention stand out as the most pressing issues. Respect, both toward the officials and the rules they enforce, is essential to maintain the integrity of the game. Many young officials would like to officiate, but their hockey schedule and school commitments do not allow them to make a commitment to officiating. Finally, retention is critical as the need for new officials entering the field can lead to a shortage of qualified referees, making it difficult to maintain the quality of officiating. Addressing these challenges is vital to ensure a fair and enjoyable experience for all participants and fans of hockey.
USA Hockey: What can local associations do to encourage more people to join the officiating ranks?
Cutler: Local referee associations can take various measures to encourage more individuals, including former players, both men and women, to join the officiating ranks. One way is to provide additional training programs to help equip aspiring officials with the necessary skills and knowledge. Furthermore, local associations can offer mentoring programs and support networks to help new officials navigate their roles and build confidence. It is also essential to actively recruit officials and create a welcoming and supportive environment for all. Additionally, recognizing and rewarding the hard work and dedication of officials can go a long way in encouraging more people to join the ranks.
USA Hockey: What is your message to people that maybe have thought about becoming a referee but for one reason or another, didn't move forward or were scared off by something
Cutler: Becoming a referee can be an experience that brings personal and professional rewards. It offers opportunities to participate in the sport you love, develop communication and decision-making skills, and positively impact the game. Although it may seem daunting initially, there are resources available that can help you gain the knowledge and confidence you need to succeed. Therefore, do not let fear or doubt hold you back from pursuing something that could bring you excellent satisfaction and growth.