Sled hockey player Jereme Gilbert moved from Texas back home to North Carolina, where he grew up, to be near his family. He quickly got on board with the Carolina Hurricanes sled hockey team in Raleigh.
There was just one problem.
“Charlotte is about three hours away,” Gilbert said. “And I don’t like to drive.”
So, for about a year now, Gilbert has been in the process of starting a sled hockey program in Charlotte. They have five players on board right now.
Gilbert participated in the eighth annual USA Hockey Sled Classic, presented by the NHL, Nov. 16-19 in Plymouth, Minnesota as a defenseman for the Hurricanes in Tier IV division play. It’s his third season with the team and second Sled Classic. Gilbert had one assist in the tournament; the Hurricanes finished runner-up in Tier IV to the Colorado Avalanche.
Gilbert started playing sled hockey with the Dallas Stars team when he lived in Texas. He had already tried a bunch of other sports before turning to hockey.
“I was about less than a year from my accident, and I wasn’t in a very good place,” Gilbert said. “And I found hockey, and I came out there and I loved it.”
Gilbert has always been a competitive person, playing soccer, participating in triathlons and competitive mountain biking. But it was a mountain biking accident that left him a paraplegic. He joined the Dallas sled hockey team and was immediately taken in as one of the guys. He loved it so much that he reached a point where he was living each week looking forward to that one hour on the ice with his teammates.
When he returned home to North Carolina, he was certain Charlotte would have a sled hockey program. After all, the Charlotte metro area has more than two million people. No such luck. That’s how he connected with the team in Raleigh, so he could keep playing.
“But it’s not really sustainable with work to be driving up there spending my entire weekend up in Raleigh,” Gilbert said.
Especially when the practice time changed from mid-day on Saturdays to 8 a.m. That wasn’t going to work for him.
He set out to start a program in Charlotte, getting help from the team in Raleigh, the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers and the owners of the ice rink in Charlotte. It’s also been a nice perk to have the national sled team and development team with their home ice in Charlotte.
Gilbert’s program — Queen City Sled Hockey — is growing, albeit slowly. Last April, Gilbert was still a one-man team, and now there are five players. They’ve hosted community events trying to get their name out there.
They’ve also had a lot of youth interest but didn’t yet have the equipment for them. They packed them into adult-sized sleds with towels, foam and duct tape. A grant from LaBatt USA’s Pass it Forward initiative helped provide some additional equipment for them, so they have some sleds that fit.
One of the bigger challenges is finding ice time. Ice is not readily available and the time is expensive with just three ice sheets in Charlotte. There’s been another tough battle, too.
“Not a lot of people know about this sport,” Gilbert said. “The thing that I never anticipated was that it was going to be difficult to find guys.
“And really, once you get people on the ice and they can experience it, we haven’t had any trouble getting people to come back.”
With Gilbert’s competitive nature, he really enjoys having personal goals to work toward in sports. Sled hockey and this new program accomplishes that for him. Even when it was just him in Charlotte, he’d still go out with a stopwatch in his lap to see how quickly he could get from blue line to blue line or red line to red line on his sled.
His goal — “kind of a stretch goal” — is for Queen City Sled Hockey to participate in a tournament the Hurricanes host in March. They’d really like to participate in some of the Southwest Sled Hockey League games and tournaments in 2018.
“If I could do for one person what hockey’s done for me, I would consider that a huge accomplishment,” he said. “Just to be in service to something that’s bigger than me, just gives you some pause.”
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USA Hockey volunteers and staff gathered in January for the organization’s annual Winter Meeting. This year’s Winter Meeting was a “legislative year,” meaning the organization focused on USA Hockey operations versus game/playing rules. Officiating is always a hot topic, and, with the recently formed Officiating Taskforce set to provide new recommendations, this year’s meeting was no different.
The Taskforce, chaired by Keith Barrett, vice president of USA Hockey and chair of the organization’s Youth Council, was formed in 2021 with the intention of bringing together USA Hockey members to explore concerns in the current youth hockey officiating environment, and to work together to formulate a comprehensive plan that addresses both the immediate and long-term issues in attracting and retaining officials in youth hockey.
It’s no secret in the hockey community that challenges exist when it comes to officials.
On the positive side, recruiting remains strong, with more than 28,000 officials registered for the 2022-23 season, one of the highest levels of all time. The job of the Taskforce and all in the organization is retaining these officials into their second year and beyond, as many face obstacles such as challenging personal schedules, verbal abuse from coaches, parents and players and slightly rising registration fees.
Dave LaBuda, USA Hockey National Referee-In-Chief, is one of the members of the Taskforce, and felt the group’s recommendations – shared in the form of a whitepaper – were both highly anticipated and well received.
“It was a very productive meeting,” said LaBuda. “Our recommendations weren’t incredibly radical. They were things we’ve been discussing for a long time and the Taskforce vetted and then put in black and white. We put forward the items we believed would be reasonable for the affiliates to pursue and put into practice.”
Included in the whitepaper were a variety of recommendations the Taskforce hopes USA Hockey affiliates across the country will consider and implement at some point starting next season.
According to LaBuda, here are the key topics discussed during the meeting:
Updated Officiating Education Program materials – “The program is doing a complete review and update of all of our educational materials starting by registration level. For this upcoming season, the Level 1 material presented at our seminars (which includes both virtual/online and in-person portions) will be implemented during the 2023-24 season and then in each following progressive season, Level 2 will follow in ’24-25 and Level 3 in ’25-26. All materials will be updated and new methodology will be incorporated. It’s a major change with regards to the education program.”
An established, and paid, group of virtual seminar instructors – “USA Hockey will now have an established group of virtual seminar instructors. They will be responsible for producing or participating in all of the virtual seminars presented by the organization. The in-person portion, at least at Level 1, will be handled by local staff on the ground. Those involved will receive stipends from the national office for their time and efforts in educating our people. That’s something that has never happened before at the national level. We acknowledge and appreciate all that they do so it's only appropriate to give them some type of honorarium.”
Full-time staff hired to support the program – “We also hired another full-time staff person for the Officiating Education Program and hope to hire another person in the not-too-distant future. These roles will enable staff to get out in the field, interacting with the local officials.”
Established a Taskforce subcommittee – “We also discussed the establishment of a Taskforce subcommittee, with a mandate to follow up with USA Hockey affiliates about what they are doing in terms of the implementation of Taskforce recommendations. That subcommittee is in the initial process of organizing and getting a game plan together, as to how they will support, monitor and evaluate how affiliates are progressing.”
Expanding official mentoring programs – “Most of the affiliate representatives there saw the immense benefit of the mentoring program, and a majority of them said they would like to implement something like it within their area of responsibility. It’s not easy, it requires affiliates to step forward and say we’re willing to do this, then directing some resources of manpower to get it off the ground. But those who already have had mentoring programs said it has had a positive impact on retention.”
Other key discussion topics included parent education programs (concerning at-rink behavior) as well as more stringently enforcing the zero-tolerance policy. Another change announced at the Winter Meeting that impacts officials was a change to the current rule change cycle. Moving forward, rule changes will be adopted at the Winter Meetings in January, every four years, in an effort to be more thoughtful, with more time (from January to the start of the next season) to review the new rules and educate officials, coaches and all involved.
“I think as a program, we’re in good shape,” LaBuda said. “We have the support of the entire organization and to be honest, the crisis that COVID brought on everybody has actually prompted better planning and communication within the hockey world. The challenge is to keep that going.”
Billy Hancock has been a USA Hockey certified official since 2006, and over his career has patrolled the ice for youth, adults, amateurs and pros on the local, national and international stages. However, in his current role, as USA Hockey coordinator of officiating, he may have an opportunity to make his biggest impact yet – this time, off the ice.
It’s no secret that the world of officiating, in hockey and across the sports landscape, has faced challenges in all aspects of the role. As coordinator of officiating, Hancock supports USA Hockey’s determined and ongoing effort to enhance the experience for referees.
“My role is to work closely with local affiliates and districts around all aspects related to officiating,” said Hancock, who most recently served as a linesman in the 2022 Olympic Winter Games and also officiated the 2021 and 2017 IIHF U18 Men’s World Championship, 2019 IIHF Men’s World Championship and 2018 IIHF U20 World Championship. “I’ll be the boots on the ground, so to speak, for our national office, whenever assistance is needed. The bulk of my job is to recruit and retain new officials at all levels of amateur hockey.”
Hancock shared his thoughts on how USA Hockey has and will continue to support local official groups and youth hockey associations, in developing officials and creating a more positive environment at our nation’s rinks.
USA Hockey: Has anything surprised you about the job so far?
Billy Hancock: I’ve been an official since the 2006-07 season, and I knew a decent amount about how the process works within USA Hockey. But I didn’t realize just how big the office truly was until I walked through it, and met all the people in different departments, from the coaching side to the foundation and more. And you see how hard the organization works to try to bring everyone together. It can be challenging but I believe we’re improving that and building good working relationships.
USAH: What challenges do you see when it comes to the current state of youth hockey officiating?
BH: The biggest and most obvious thing is the abuse we see from coaches, players and parents, and them not being penalized. We try to tell all of our officials in our seminars that we have a rule book, let’s defend it. The problem is, we have a number of younger officials. Fifty-one percent of our officials this year are Level 1s and the majority of them are under the age of 18. So, it’s hard to tell a 16-year-old kid, go penalize a 40-year-old coach. It can be intimidating to stand up for yourself and have that confidence. We’re working to improve our mentor practice and shadow program, someone that helps you out for your first season, and says, ‘hey how was your first game, have you had any issues?’ And, if that official has an issue during a game, he can call his mentor and say ‘how could I handle this next time?’ Some areas in the country do a great job with this and others don’t. We want to improve that with assistance from USA Hockey.
As far as shadowing, that’s about having someone on the ice that follows you around, tells you where to stand and how to call a penalty, for the first 2-3 games. They can provide guidance on how to handle being abused, how to handle a game report. There are many things you can do with it.
USAH: What are some things you’ve noticed that are going well or you could point to as already improving or successful?
BH: The development program we have in terms of education going from grassroots all the way to the top, has been great. The development camps are phenomenal. Nobody else in the world has the programs we do to develop officials. I think USA Hockey also does a good job of showing our officials how to get to the next level.
USAH: How can USA Hockey work on a grassroots level to better support officials and make an impact at the local level?
BH: We are already taking steps to improve the Coaching Education Program curriculum, which is a big start. This season for the first time we’re doing rules questions in coaching seminars. A better understanding of the rules can only help with respect for one another and improve the relationship.
We also need to do more work with coaches and officials to help them communicate better with each other. That starts with our seminars for officials. You may have a 35- or 40-year-old coach talking to a 16-year-old official. They need to understand that they’re talking to a child not an adult. For the officials, it’s a very unique situation because even though you might be 16 or 18, you’re still the superior person on the ice and the one in charge of the game. But you need to learn to talk to that adult in a proper way and vice versa. We have had a tendency, for a long time, that coaches, players and parents are on one side of the island and referees are by themselves on the other side. We need to find a way to say listen, all of us want what’s best for the game, and merge all together.
As an organization, we will look to do more traveling out to local rinks and do presentations, about what it’s like to be an official and what’s our goal on the ice, and discuss that with coaches, players and parents. We should have local referee-in-chiefs meeting with affiliates, meetings with associations, get them all together and make it a face-to-face thing.
USAH: What can local associations do on their own to grow their pool of officials?
BH: The simplest way to bring in more officials in is to start advertising it. In the same way that we approach advertising to players with Try Hockey For Free and Learn to Skate, we should appeal to people to be referees. That also includes advertising on association’s websites.. Then, they could have local meetings with speakers, whether it’s me or someone in the local hockey officiating community. We always joke that Rochester, New York is the linesman capital of the world. We’ve had a number of officials come out of that area and work some really high-level games. We have so many American officials that have come out of big and small markets that have gone on to work Division I hockey, the Olympics. Telling their stories and a showcasing officials at the local level is an important step as well.
USAH: How can we grow the number of female officials in the sport?
BH: As we need to for officiating in general, we need to do a better job of getting the word out to female skaters who may be interested in officiating. For example, if we engage players when they are still playing, a start to talk with them about the opportunities that are available to them in the officiating world, it would help spread the word. I think one of the biggest challenges is that female players or those who may be interested in being a referee think there aren’t as many opportunities for them as there are for men. But there’s more opportunity than they think.
We’ve also been striving to create new roles within USA Hockey for officiating education. We now have a female referee in chief, Krissy Langley, who hosts a monthly call called Whistle Talk and talks with high-level female officials across the country about what’s working, what’s not and what we can do better. We’re also doing a mentoring program with local female officials. There has been progress, but we still need to do a better job of communicating and giving young players the chance to get on the ice, blow the whistle, see what it’s like to be an official and get them signed up.
USAH: What are the most important things to do to create a positive environment in the rink?
BH: I think it starts before they get to the rink. Coaches, and maybe even players, should take a walk in a referees’ shoes and see what it’s like to ref a game, maybe go through the seminar process, just learn what it takes to become an official. We also need to enforce a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to abusing officials. It could be having a parent monitor in the stands, who steps up for officials. Again, it comes back to a better understanding of and communicating respectfully with each other.