CHAPTER SIX

THE ROLE OF THE ON-ICE OFFICIAL

Where do I start?

We could devote an entire book to the on-ice official in hockey.

Suffice it to say that hockey referees are just about the most misunderstood, harassed officials in sport. There is arguably no other sport where all participants, including fans, turn so quickly on the person who is enforcing the rules of play. Sure, you can always find examples of officials in football, basketball, baseball and soccer being verbally abused, but these are mostly isolated cases and result in very severe repercussions for the abuser.

In hockey, however, you see examples of verbal abuse of officials at virtually every single game, at just about every single level of play. Whether it is a coach, a player or a fan complaining about a penalty call or a non-call, it is something that has become so much an integral part of the game that people have come to expect it. In fact, there are many hockey games during which the full attention and focus of a coach or fans are entirely on what the referee is doing and not on the players at all. What is amazing about this type of activity is that people with average intelligence seem to think that this type of behaviour is acceptable.

I always laugh when I see a fan or a coach begin to get “on a referee” about a penalty. I imagine the same person being stopped by a police officer for speeding. I can see that person yelling at the police officer for stopping him and complaining to the officer about letting others get off scott free. I can also imagine him telling the police officer that he should be out catching criminals instead of picking on him for speeding. Only a complete idiot would do something so self-destructing as yell at a police officer that is giving him a ticket. And yet, they do it all the time to the referee in hockey.

So in examining the role of the on-ice official, we will take a close look at referees and linesmen and try see if we can make some sense out of the role they play in the game of hockey.

PROVIDING FOR A SAFE AND FAIR GAME

A hockey official’s main role is to provide for a safe & fair environment in which to play the game. He is there to enforce the rules. We must remember that the referee did not make up the rules. He is merely there to enforce the rules. Furthermore, he is being paid to enforce those rules and if he fails to do so, he will lose his job. It is unfair of coaches, players and parents to complain about the penalties being called by a referee, because if they are not called properly, he may suffer economic consequences.

The interpretation of what constitutes a “safe and fair” hockey game is the root of most problems. What is safe and fair at the junior level may not be so at the Novice level. In fact, what is safe and fair when two players collide on the ice may not be considered safe and fair when two completely different players collide. It is all in the eyes and interpretation of the official. It would be nice if things could be black and white as in determining how much over the speed limit a person was driving, but that is not the case. To further complicate the matter, your definition of what is safe may be stricter than that of the referee. This is usually always the case when it involves your own son or daughter. Parents tend to be a little less concerned when it is someone else’s child or a child on the other team.

One thing is for certain. A safe environment is only accomplished by enforcing the playing rules and penalizing those who are guilty of playing outside the rules that have been developed over decades of hockey history. You don’t create a save environment by ignoring the rules, and yet it is with this very point that referees are their own worst enemy.

We have all witnessed hockey games where the referee in charge has let a lot of infractions go unpunished. Hooking, slashing, holding, tripping, elbowing, roughing penalties often are allowed without calls, especially at the upper levels of play. There are many reasons why penalties might not be called, but this simply causes confusion among players and fans alike, resulting in a great deal of emotional unrest. Some of the most common reasons for not calling penalties are:

  1. The referee simply did not see the infraction.
  2. The referee felt it was an accident and there was no intent.
  3. The referee felt that it did not result in any team gaining an advantage.
  4. The referee felt that is was not severe enough to give the other team a power play.
  5. The referee felt that it was not in the best interests of game management to call the penalty at the time.
  6. The referee may have been told by his supervisor not to call many of the so-called minor infractions.
  7. The referee has learned that he will generate fewer complaints if he doesn’t call penalties than if he calls everything he sees.

Knowing when to call and when not to call penalties is a skill that a referee develops with experience and age. In addition, all referees have a certain style of their own. When I was coaching, I would always checked to see who was assigned to referee the game before giving my players the final pre-game pep talk. I would then be prepared to give the players advice on what they were likely to get away with during the game. Some referees will allow you to do anything as long as it is not in retaliation, or after the whistle. This means you can be a bit more aggressive. Others call ‘everything’, so you have to be careful. Other referees try to ‘even-up’ penalties. This means that if you are on a power play, you must stay absolutely away from the opposition or you may end up on the receiving end of a penalty called to eliminate a man advantage.

Many people feel it is unfortunate that the National Hockey League has gone to the two-man referee system. This has taken away a lot of the individuality that you once found among professional referees. There were both good and bad points in the old system, but at least there was some colour. Today, there is very little pressure on any one referee since both officials share the responsibility for decisions. And to take even more pressure off, you have the video goal judge for close calls. The result has been that the NHL has become extremely strict with respect to calling penalties. In fact, with two referees calling penalties, and knowing that their supervisors will be in touch with you immediately if you miss obvious infractions, you tend to see much more hooking, tripping, holding and slashing at the minor Atom levels, especially behind the play, than you see in the NHL today.

The term FAIR is rather self-explanatory.  Referees and Linesmen must approach every game as a new game and should be FAIR in exercising judgment on penalty calls, off-side calls, icings, etc..  Throughout the course of a game you may see the penalties become lopsided with one team receiving the majority of the penalty calls.  This sometimes upsets the players (causing them to commit even more penalties), coaches (causing them to yell at the officials) and parents who will express their disagreement verbally so every official and other parent in the arena can hear what they think of the official’s performance. 

Officials who are guilty of treating teams unfairly will be investigated and soon demoted or suspended until they change their attitude. Most officials, fortunately, take their responsibilities seriously and are do everything in their power to be fair to all parties.

However, just for a moment, let us consider why one team may be getting an unequal share of penalties in a game. There are many teams that deserve to get more penalties than their opposition. A referee must have enough courage to administer the rules so that he creates a “safe and fair” environment for all players. This must remain utmost in a referee’s mind. He must not be overly concerned with the fact that one team has been given more penalties than the other.

At the end of most games, the number of penalties given to each team is generally pretty close. Because a referee is allowed to exercise discretion and is free to interpret activity on the ice, it is usually pretty easy to have the total penalties come out even. Nevertheless, this does not mean that when a team is killing a penalty they can ignore the rulebook. In fact, most teams when killing a penalty go out of their way to commit infractions, thinking that the referee will be reluctant to put them down two men. A good referee will likely allow them to get away with minor infractions while killing penalties, but you can’t ignore things like high-sticking, cross-checking, vicious slashes and roughing. I have seen one team receive four consecutive penalties during one two-minute short-handed situation, simply because the players couldn’t get through their heads that they were not going to be allowed to get away with those things. When this happens, the parents and coaching staff usually goes ballistic, and the players get even more upset. The referee would like to ignore the infractions, but he can’t. His job is to ensure a safe and fair environment. It is not a safe environment if you allow a team to get away with illegal activity just because they have already been given a penalty. That would be the same as a police officer letting a speeder off without a ticket simply because he received a ticket earlier that day. A good police officer would be more upset and more likely to give out the second ticket because the driver didn’t learn the first time.

CERTIFICATION & TRAINING OF OFFICIALS

In an effort to establish some consistency across the country, both Canada and the Unites States have developed a certification process for hockey officials.

This process provides for a certain standard with respect to training and development of officials which must be followed across the country. However, when you try to have one-size fits all system, there are bound to be problems. These problems usually appear on the ice.

One of the main problems is that just about anyone can get their introductory, or Level 1 and 2 certificates. All you have to do is read the rulebook and be able to answer multiple-choice questions. In fact, you may not even need to demonstrate an ability to skate to get the certificate. A referee who is certified, but who is otherwise “unqualified” to officiate, is soon discovered and will simply not be assigned any games by the referee-in-chief.  Note that I distinguish between the terms “certified” and “qualified”. I have seen many referees who were duly “certified”, but who were certainly not “qualified according to talent or ability” to be on the ice. It usually doesn’t take very long before the system gets rid of these people.

We happen to be discussing officials in this chapter, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that in the case of coaches, it is even easier to become certified, and a coach is much harder to get rid of when it is discovered that he is “unqualified as an individual human being” to be behind the bench.

DECLINE IN NUMBER OF OFFICIALS IS ALARMING

One alarming statistic with respect to referees is the fact that the total number of referees  has pretty much remained static for a long period of time, despite the fact that the number of registered hockey players is rising. What’s more disturbing about this is that the number of games being played during a typical season has increased dramatically in recent years. There are more tournaments, more games in the season, longer playoffs and more exhibition games. Yet the number of officials has remained static. This means that referees are doing more games per season and senior officials have little or no time to mentor or supervise young referees.

What should be of most concern to hockey organizations in both Canada and the United States, however, is in the area of the number of certified officials who are registered beyond the entry level. Recent statistics indicate that as many as 75% of all hockey officials are certified at one of the two lowest levels. This means that only 25% of officials have bothered to proceed to the higher levels.

This can be an indication of a couple of things. First of all, it could mean that most referees are satisfied with the entry level. However, this is not likely, since referees who stick with it for any length of time would at least progress to the intermediate levels in order to be certified for playoff games and games at the older divisions.

What the statistics are most likely indicating is that there is a tremendous drop-out rate among hockey officials. Those young hockey officials are getting certified and before they have time to progress to higher levels, they decide that it isn’t worth the abuse from the coaches, players and fans and decide to quit.

Unfortunately, since supervisors must have at least an intermediate level of certification in order to be responsible for developing young officials, it is an indication of trouble in the future. With so few senior qualified referees available for the higher age categories, they will be too busy handling games to look after mentoring younger officials. With a lack of training and support, the drop out rate among officials will begin to accelerate and get even worse.

The thing that hockey administrators must take into consideration is that since entry level officials are generally assigned to Novice and Atom categories to gain experience, it just may be the result of the negative influence of coaches, players and parents of the youngest divisions of hockey who are driving officials out of the game. This is a serious situation that is consistent with the fact that by the end of Peewees, a large number of players have had enough of the game as well. Therefore, not only do we have to examine the reasons why players leave the game at an early age, we also have to examine why officials leave the game in the same time period.

PROFESSIONALISM

It must be noted that in a Minor Hockey or Amateur Hockey game, the on-ice officials (Referee & Linesmen) are the ONLY PROFESSIONALS on the ice. While this is something that officials should be proud of, it also means that they have a personal responsibility to uphold a higher standard that is worthy of the designation, both on and off the ice.

WHAT MAKES AN OFFICIAL LOOK PROFESSIONAL?

When it comes to the question of professionalism, there are several things that give an official that special image. The following are in no particular order of importance.

First of all is confidence. You can sense a referee who is confident. He makes his calls clearly and without hesitation. He is the type of person who gives the impression that he knows the rules and has had enough experience to handle any situation that comes up.

Second is communication. An official who is able to stay calm in the face of pressure and communicate with the coaches and players at all appropriate situations throughout a game is one who clearly looks professional. He is able to develop a rapport with the players and coaches in order to command respect and reduce the number of verbal complaints that occur during the game.

The third consideration is appearance. An official must make sure that his skates, pants, shirt, helmet and visor are clean at all times. Some officials purchase dozens of white laces each year so that they can throw away laces that get scuffed or cut up. Others carry two sets of sweaters, especially when on the road; in case they get blood on one shirt and cannot wash it before the next game.

Physical Fitness is the fourth consideration. An athletic body build in a referee tends to indicate to observers that this is a special game. It also allows the observers to automatically feel confident that this official is in good shape and will be able to be in the proper position to make the calls.

Even off-ice presence rates being mentioned as the fifth consideration. This includes the way an official appears when he enters the arena. Is the person dressed up, or is the person in jeans. While clothes don’t make the person, they certainly create an impression. Also, if a young official develops a reputation of being a party animal or a problem kid, then the chances of this official gaining the respect of the players, coaches and fans is difficult. The fact that others are watching them and expect them to adhere to a higher standard of behaviour in public than the average person is something for officials to remember when they are out with their friends in the evenings. You are a professional. While you may not think much about it, you are a figure of authority to many people, in much the same way as a police officer or a teacher. If you act in a disgraceful or disrespectful manner away from the rink, that reputation will follow you on to the ice. An official must always be concerned about his off-ice presence and image.

Positioning on the ice is number six. An official who is in position to make the proper calls will look far more professional than an official who is behind the play or skating all over the ice. The official who is in position will be able to defend his decision more easily because he usually has the best view in the arena to make the call. Even if he isn’t doesn’t have a perfect view, others will assume he does simply because of his positioning.

Not the least of the considerations is our seventh – attitude! An official who shows hustle, determination to make the right calls, and enthusiasm on the ice, will gain the respect of all participants much more than an official who is lazy or who thinks that he is too good for the caliber of hockey. We see this far too often in minor hockey. Because of the lack of qualified officials, it is sometimes necessary to ask a referee to handle a game that he may feel is well below his capability. The official will accept the assignment, but it is obvious to everyone that his heart isn’t in the game. He shows this in his skating, his positioning, and his general attitude. Good referees will realize that when young players see a senior official on the ice it makes them feel special. After all, how often will a ten year old get to be this close to a twenty-five year old referee who usually does Junior A games? While no one will likely be able to put their finger on it, there is an elevated level of pride when a young team is on the ice with a senior official. This means that the referee should demonstrate an elevated attitude towards the game. He should hustle and show that he is glad to be in the game and definitely treat the young players with the utmost respect. Imagine what this will do to motivate the players. Imagine what this will do to the parents who will be satisfied that they have a well-qualified referee doing their game. Attitude may be seventh in this list, but it is undoubtedly one of the most distinguishing features that make the difference between good and average referees.

The eighth item in this list deals with the way an official makes signals. When you make clear, crisp signals so that everyone in the arena can see the call, you convey that you know what you are doing and that you feel confident in your decision. Watch the referee in your next game. See how he signals his calls. This is a telltale sign of his level of professionalism. Admittedly, some people like to “showboat” when they make their signals. There is a fine line between being professional and being a show-off. You can usually tell the difference.

Again, while this next item is the ninth on the list, it is one of the most important. The way an official handles himself in pressure situations is critical. A professional will stay calm and take control of matters in a thoughtful, methodical manner. When players are pushing each other, coaches and fans are screaming and shouting abusive comments, and your linesmen have been running themselves ragged keeping players apart, it can seem like the end of the world for the referee who is standing out there all alone, responsible for restoring order and getting the game back under control.  A good referee realizes that in situations such as this, ‘time’ is your best friend. A professional referee will allow the linesmen to separate the combatants by getting them to their benches, allow the coaches and parents to yell themselves out, and calmly record numbers in the notepad that he should be carrying around in his pocket. The important thing to remember in all of this is that players usually do not want to fight. They will put on a big show as long as they know there is someone around who will step in and protect them. If they know the linesmen are tied up with another battle, players will usually merely skate around and look tough, but they don’t want to risk getting beat up and looking bad in front of their friends. A good referee knows this and often all he has to do is skate close to them, shout a few distinct commands, issue threats about misconducts, and the players will separate. When the referee pulls out the ‘book and pencil’ the players know that they are in trouble. They know that every number will be written down and the penalties will be caught.

Game management skills are so very important when determining the level of professionalism of a referee. Point number ten is all about having a great “Feel for the game”. A professional referee will understand the emotions of the players as the game progresses. He knows what infractions can affect the outcome of a game and which infractions should not be called. Game management is about consistency. Not only during the game, but from game to game. Good coaches will always check to see who has been assigned to referee the game before giving their players the final pep talk. A referee who is consistent and who manages the game well may be yelled at from time to time, but make no mistake about it, coaches appreciate a well-managed game and do respect the referees who have superior ability.

GOOD REFEREES ARE BORN, NOT MADE

You can usually pick out a naturally, gifted hockey player just by watching him on the ice for a few shifts. The same can be said about a gifted referee. To the trained eye, a talented referee can be spotted in a few minutes. He demonstrates all of the characteristics described above and has a real presence on the ice. He looks like he belongs there.

Sure, the fans and coaches may yell at him. Sure, he may have some bad games and find himself under fire from time to time. But he has that special quality which places him on a level far above the norm. For the sake of the game, we must do all we can to discover these referees at a young age. We must do what ever we can to nurture their skills and encourage them to continue. Without these gifted referees, the future of our game is in jeopardy. We can’t play without them.