By adopting and implementing an innovative cognitive training program, USA Hockey has taken a bold step to improve its officiating performance and development.
Scott Zelkin and Matt Leaf, leaders of the USA Hockey Officiating Education Program, have aimed to reduce phantom calls and enhance the game experience for everyone while continuing to preserve safety and sportsmanship at all levels.
With the help of The Hockey IntelliGym, a cognitive engineering program developed by ACE (Applied Cognitive Engineering), USA Hockey referees are experiencing a new training program and seeing positive results.
The so-called "false alarms" are being greatly reduced.
“As the level increases, and the pressure increases, we’re working with officials in terms of their anticipation, in terms of their awareness, and in terms of their judgment,” said Zelkin, manager of USA Hockey’s Junior Officiating Development Program. “If we can help limit mistakes, it’s a victory for everyone. Officiating hockey is no different than playing in the sense that you’re trying to limit mistakes.”
The Hockey IntelliGym completed a program with USA Hockey and its referees during the 2015-16 season, and its results showed a 92-percent reduction in the amount of times officials stopped the game for no justified reason.
“To run the IntelliGym program, it takes 20-30 minutes for each segment, but it’s progressive, so once the participant achieves a certain level, the game changes,” said Leaf, the director of USA Hockey’s Officiating Education Program. “There’s a very scientific progression that’s involved. Essentially what it does is brain training as it relates to situations and environments for hockey players.”
Of the 40 referees who went through the program, juxtaposed to the control group, the IntelliGym-trained referees reduced unjustified game stoppages by an average of 2.55 times per game. Each group improved as the season went on, but the IntelliGym-trained referees progressed at a much higher clip.
“Even before we got the results back,” Zelkin said, “there were a number of officials that said to me, ‘You know what? I noticed a difference in how I was thinking about things on the ice and how I was reacting to things on the ice. I don’t know if it had anything to do with the IntelliGym, but it seems kind of coincidental otherwise. I really liked it.’”
By improving a referee’s cognitive function, it allows him or her to be in the proper position to see the play and make the correct decision. Every American-born referee hired by the NHL the past 19 years has come through USA Hockey’s Officiating Development Program. The goal now, according to Zelkin and Leaf, is for those in stripes to keep pace with the accelerating players they’re policing.
This is just one of the many ways in which USA Hockey is working proactively to improve officiating performance and development, thereby enhancing the game experience for all involved.
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.