Josh Sweeney (Phoenix, Ariz.) and Taylor Lipsett (Plano, Texas) of the gold-medal winning U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team were featured on ESPN.com's Guiness Suite on April 22.
The Referee Section of USA Hockey recently met during Annual Congress and discussed a variety of issues that will have an impact in the success of the officiating program. Many of those issues relate back to the successful completion of the registration requirements and the retention of officials.
Streamlining the registration process and maximizing the efficiency of our educational platforms are always a priority and the following Q-and-A will highlight those changes that every official should be aware of heading into the new season.
USA Hockey: What is the biggest change made to the registration requirements for this season?
Matt Leaf: With more and more seminars transitioning to a virtual format, the Referees-in-Chief (RIC) have determined that there really is no need for the closed book exams. So, level 2, 3 and 4 officials this season will no longer be required to submit a closed book (or modified online closed book exam) upon completion of the seminar requirement. Instead, the open book exams have been expanded to 75 questions for level 2 and 100 questions each for level 3 and level 4.
The RICs acknowledged that the purpose of the exams has always been as a means to encourage rule knowledge, so more effort was made to put together open book exam questions that will encourage the officials to open the Rules/Casebook in an effort to not only learn the rule, but more importantly, understand the spirit and intent of the rule.
USAH: Are there any other changes to the exam process
ML: The only other change to the exams deal with those who do not pass the original exam. Level 2, 3 and 4 officials will now be able to complete their retake exam 24 hours after failing their original exam. Level 1 officials will still need to wait seven days as we want them to slow down and take some time reviewing the rules so they can gain a better understanding and improve their chances for success on the ice.
USAH: What changes, if any, have been made to the seminars? Are all officials still required to attend a seminar each season?
ML: Yes, except for Tenured Officials, all officials are required to attend a seminar for the level that they apply for each season. So, a Level 1 official must attend a Level 1 seminar, Level 2 attends a Level 2 and then Level 3 and 4 seminars will be combined as one seminar in many cases.
Level 1 officials are strongly encouraged to attend a seminar in their own area and most areas will mainly conduct in-person Level 1 seminars. Although there will be some hybrid Level 1 seminars with both a virtual and in-person component, the key here is that every Level 1 official is required to attend a Level 1 seminar ice session. This may require some additional coordination of scheduling for these new officials, but the reality is this on-ice practice is so critical to any future success they may have on the ice that the RICs feel it is critical that the ice session is part of their educational experience.
Level 2 seminars will also include an on-ice component that Level 2 officials need to be aware of when they plan their seminar attendance. The vast majority of Level 3 and Level 4 seminars will be virtual and officials are encouraged to attend a seminar at a date and time that is convenient for them.
USAH: Have there been any changes to the curriculum for the various levels?
ML: The curriculum for each level was standardized prior to last season and is something that will continue to be updated on an annual basis. The specific presentations, along with the video examples, have all been developed in a manner that provides valuable information specific to each level with new presentations and updated video examples being used to keep things fresh and relevant. In addition, the seminar curriculum has been coordinated with the online modules to minimize duplication and to diversify the required education for each level.
USAH: How about SafeSport and Screening – any changes to those requirements?
ML: The background screening process will remain the same as USA Hockey is required to conduct a national screen every two years on any official who is 18 years of age as of June 1 of the registration year (in this case 2022). Both the background screen and the SafeSport training are mandated by the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) per the Amateur Sports Act initiated by Congress.
For SafeSport, any official who was born in 2005, or earlier, is required to complete SafeSport training on a yearly basis. This may include the full training or refresher training that is managed by the US Center for SafeSport. Although it will not have an impact on registration for this season, there was a change in SafeSport that has been made where the training will only be valid for a 12-month period of time and it not consistent with an overlapping season. This will be addressed during the summer of 2023.
USAH: Are there any other changes or areas of emphasis that you want officials to be aware of?
ML: A significant part of the discussions that took place with the RICs focused on the importance mentoring plays in the success and, ultimately, the retention of brand-new officials. USA Hockey loses 50% of our new officials every season and improving that retention rate by just 15% will result in 1,000 additional experienced officials joining our ranks each year. We need to do a better job of bringing new officials into the fold and then supporting them in ways that sets them up for a successful and rewarding experience. The RICs feel strongly the best way to positively impact this issue is through mentoring.
Experienced officials should expect to receive information later this summer that outlines expectations of a formal Mentor Program and asking them to volunteer their time and expertise to become involved as a mentor. Once we have established a pool of officials that are willing to contribute in this way to the next generation of officials, they will be assigned a group of new officials they can reach out to and guide them through the registration process, seminar attendance, assistance in completing the open book exam and reaching out to prospective assignors when the time has come they are ready to work games. Once they have stepped on the ice, that mentor can continue to be a valuable resource for the new official and provide the necessary support needed to be successful. We will also be encouraging local clubs, assignors and officials’ groups to implement Shadow Programs that will complement the Mentor Program and positively enhance the officials’ experience even more.
With everyone working together towards a common goal, USA Hockey can become a leader in addressing the officiating crisis while providing a positive experience to our next generation of officials.
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.”