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Monday, January 11, 2010

Ref Rage

This season, more than ever, it seems that the outpouring of outrage directed toward hockey referees has reached a new high. Or more aptly, an unprecedented low.

Maybe it is just my imagination. Maybe it is just a result of how the world has become that much smaller and the flow of information that much faster and far-reaching so we hear more about these kinds of things. Maybe. But maybe there really are more of these kinds of incidents occurring in all of youth sports, not just hockey.

Earlier this season the Toronto Star ran a series of articles about conflict in youth hockey, the rampant verbal and physical abuse of officials by players, coaches and parents. Many referees are in fear for their safety during and after games with no idea who or what might be waiting for them as they make their way from the dressing room to their car.

Where exactly did this concept of the referee playing the role of the villain come from? I am guessing it filters down from how officials are viewed at the professional levels of sports. I “get it” at that level. It makes sense to me. It is all part of the entertainment experience for the fans. The referees enter the ice for their warm-up skate to a chorus of boos accompanied by “Three Blind Mice” courtesy of the organist. Depending on the score of the game and the play of the home team that could be it or it could very much go south from there. Whether the referees had anything to do with it or not.

Somehow that attitude toward officials has descended into the depths of youth sports where the game is not exactly entertainment for the spectators. By that I mean they are not paying money to watch and be entertained. They are definitely paying money for their child to participate. But there very much is a difference. The players and coaches are not professionals. By that I mean they are not paid to play. Well at least most coaches aren’t, but some are. Either way, there is a huge difference between professional sports and youth recreational sports.

But apparently not in the way referees are viewed. That is the problem.

Youth hockey referees are paid. That is the argument most people haul out when voicing their displeasure. Absolutely. They should be. Who in their right mind would want to do that for nothing? Who in their right mind would want to do it for what youth hockey referees actually get paid? Don’t get me wrong, $20-40 an hour, depending on the level of play, is not bad money to officiate a hockey game. I can think of much worse ways to earn money. But factor in the potential verbal and risk of physical abuse and it really doesn’t seem like much.

Just a couple of issues
I only have a couple of issues with officials. One is with payment when one referee doesn’t show up for a game and the other one feels they are obligated to at least half, if not all, of the absent referee’s share. Seriously? Are you going to somehow grow a second set of legs, arms and eyes, be in two places at once and have the ability to blow a second whistle with another orifice?

Yes, I get that they might have to work harder. But that is not the fault of the teams participating. If I order breakfast at Denny’s and they forget to bring my pancakes along with my eggs, hash browns and sausage you can bet I am not paying for them. And they wouldn’t even think of charging me for them.

The other issue is presence, body language, whatever you want to call it. Act like you want to be there. Some referees look arrogant, like they are “too good” for the level of game they are officiating. Their effort is lackluster and enthusiasm non-existent. If you don’t want to be there, then don’t. Let someone else do the game. Your actions (or lack of them) are only serving to fuel the fires of angst toward you. Like coaches, players and spectators need a push to go in that direction.

Mistakes all around
Referees will make bad calls or what one side or the other will perceive as the wrong call. Absolutely. So will the players and coaches. It is a game of mistakes. Especially at the youth recreational level because everybody is learning the game as they go. As much as professional sports is an entertainment experience, youth sports is a learning experience. For everybody.
So because referees receive a paycheck they should be perfect? And in whose eyes must they be perfect? Because surely there are no more biased people in an ice arena than the players, coaches and parents. Think their perception of a referee’s decision might be a little warped by their allegiance? Just a little?

When I first started coaching at the youth level I wondered how some referees got hit by the puck during the action. How couldn’t they get out of the way? How could they not know where the puck was going to go based on the positioning and movement of the players on the ice? How did they miss that obvious call? How did they make that obvious non-call? What did they see that I didn’t see? What didn’t they see that I did see?

Easy. First of all I have played and watched hockey for over 40 years. What seems obvious to me might be new to them. Secondly, I am on the bench. My sightline is completely different than theirs. I don’t have to worry about being run into by a player or hit by the puck. I am not part of the action, constantly assessing and re-assessing where I am, where the puck is, where all of the players are and what they are doing. It’s pretty easy for me to make a decision. One that is more often than not biased by the team I am affiliated with.

Which makes me wonder what parents are thinking (or obviously not thinking) when they yell at officials from their safe perch in the stands, far away from the action. I feel very confident in suggesting that 100% of hockey parents don’t even know the rules or how to apply them. I know I don’t. I don’t even try. And I would bet that 100% of coaches don’t either. And for that matter probably 100% of referees. Although I am sure I will get an e-mail from one or twenty claiming that they do.

On the topic of not knowing, I really don’t know what the official pre-game protocol is for referees in youth hockey. But I do know that some are much better than others at “humanizing” themselves to coaches, introducing themselves at the bench before the game and having a friendly chat. I think it is no coincidence that there tend to be fewer conflicts in games refereed by those officials than by those who are less engaging.

As we head into the meat of the hockey season with the “more important” league and state tournament playoff games being played, it is a great time for everyone to take a step back, a deep breath and lay off of the referees. But at the same time it is a great time for the officials to step up, be active, be involved and be confident in making calls as they see them.

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