Finding officials for hockey games can be hard for a variety of reasons.
One of the biggest reasons is the pressure that’s put onto new officials when they call their first few games, as players, coaches and fans aren’t likely to give them the benefit of the doubt for rookie mistakes.
The Michigan Amateur Hockey Association (MAHA) has come up with a unique way to onboard new hockey officials and help lessen the pressure teams, leagues and tournaments are feeling when it comes to ensuring they don’t need to cancel or reschedule games because they cannot find someone to officiate it.
The Earn Your Stripes Invitational encourages teams to play early-season games with the understanding that the focus is on new officials, not the final score. The tournament serves as real-time training for Level 1 officials with mentoring from senior officials and senior referee supervisors who provide instruction on ice throughout the course of a game.
“On a national basis we identified several years ago that we were about to encounter a crossroads in terms of the availability of officials for our game,” said Jason Reynolds, MAHA’s director of operations and marketing. “To some degree, we saw this coming, but I think it really came to a head when the pandemic came in 2020. Post-pandemic we wanted to be proactive in finding solutions to introducing more participants to the occupation of on-the-ice officiating. We saw this as a unique event and a unique opportunity that we could do early in each season.”
It’s an innovative approach to combating negative perceptions of referees who first took the ice during a game that had standings implications and no room for error.
“This tournament gives them an opportunity to have dialogue and conversations in those mentoring moments with those senior officials so that there can be course correction and there can be opportunities for feedback and criticism and instruction,” Reynolds said.
The idea is to give new, usually young, officials the opportunity to gain confidence, education and experience before they have to officiate a real game.
Reynolds has never had difficulty finding teams willing to take part in the tournament, both because it offers extra ice time for teams at the start of the season and because everyone in hockey knows how crucial the onboarding of new officials is to the continued growth of the sport.
The association has taken on the costs of ice rental for the jamboree-style tournament and has been flexible about how the tournament might look year after year based on ice availability and getting both teams and officials enough time on the ice. The hope is that the tournament builds confidence and serves as an introductory platform for new and young participants that may be interested in becoming an official.
MAHA’s version has mostly been 10U teams and young hockey players stepping into officiating, but the opportunity for this kind of event to be molded and customized to the needs of any association is one of the reasons it is so exciting and appealing. Instead of a one-day event, it could be combined with a Level 1 officiating course or seminar where new officials are credentialed and immediately put what they learn into action.
Even without an expanded program, Reynolds expressed that one of the crucial parts of Earn Your Stripes is encouraging discussion, feedback and education off the ice. Past tournaments included time in between the sets of games given to the officials to be able to meet and talk through situations that they encountered. The dialogue and ability to expand on discussions is a crucial part of the process.
Open dialogue and mentorship are something that can and should expand far beyond the single tournament. On top of creating a comfortable environment for the young officials to learn, this setup gives mentors the opportunity to set expectations for how an official should handle the whole process, from arriving at the rink to going home again. They can course-correct and create a standard across the area for what is expected of MAHA’s officials.
Reynolds has already started thinking about how Earn Your Stripes can be expanded and adapted for use across the state of Michigan, and he recognizes that this concept is one that could be replicated by associations across the U.S.
“I would love to see other USA Hockey affiliates jump onto this concept and find their own ways to make it better and customize it into their own respective events,” Reynolds said. “We're extremely proud that we've been able to provide new officials on-ice experience ahead of time that they wouldn't have otherwise been able to achieve prior to starting their journey as an ice official.”
Every association understands the need for programs like Try Hockey for Free, said Reynolds, and should see this tournament as a similar program that helps provide one solution to a critical problem the sport is facing.
“There is a lot of opportunity for USA Hockey affiliates to make this concept their own however they see fit,” said Reynolds.
“We've landed on a great starting point to onboard new officials.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.