Sports fans love to list and rank players, teams, coaches, plays, etc. Naturally, the superstars dominate the headlines. Then, come the “underrated” players who may not get the same number of headlines but are still impact players.
Players who have smaller or more specific roles on teams hardly ever make the individual lists and don’t receive much attention in teams lists, even though the importance of “depth” seems to grow with each season in the NHL and NCAA.
One group that never gets mentioned though and is almost certainly the most underappreciated member of hockey at all age groups: the officials.
That’s right. The third team on the ice, who everyone loves to hate.
Officials play a critical role in hockey, and yet, they’re far more likely to be yelled at than receive a compliment for a job well done.
“In the Rocky Mountain district, they did a study on retention by interviewing officials who didn’t return for the next season,” said Mike Mannin, president of the Minnesota Hockey Officials Association. “A vast majority of the issues were related to abuse of officials. Now, it’s getting to the point where there’s physical abuse. We had three of them last year. One guy actually went onto the ice and shoved a referee.”
“We’re starting to get information out there about the abuse of officials because quite honestly that’s why we’re losing officials. People just don’t want to deal with it. It’s going to get to a point if this keeps up where we’re going to have a real shortage of officials. With the growth of hockey, we’re going to struggle to get games filled.”
On the Decline
Over the past ten years, the number of hockey players in Minnesota has grown over 10% to nearly 58,000. The number of coaches has grown by about 6%. Meanwhile, the number of officials has dropped by almost 14%.
It’s not just in Minnesota either. The number of hockey players throughout the U.S. has increased by 100,000 players over the past ten years, marking a growth of over 20%! Again, coaches had a modest increase as well, but the number of officials declined by 5%.
“You’re not going to play an organized hockey game without officials,” said Mannin. “We’re not going to be perfect, but we try our hardest. From a management side, we’re doing our best to give more tools and make the officials better. That’s our goal is to make every official better.”
A High Standard
“Each official has to go through a qualification process every single year,” said Mannin. “We have to do an open book test. We have to do online modules, which are anywhere from two to four hours. We have to do seminars which are three to eight hours. We have to take a closed book test. Then, each individual district has a supervisor, and we go out and evaluate the officials.”
In addition to evaluating officials and providing them with feedback, it’s common for experienced officials to work games with and mentor younger officials.
“It plays a huge role because they learn from someone who has been there,” said Mannin. “If there are any discrepancies on the ice, we will deal with it rather than subject the young officials to that situation. They’re young and vulnerable, and we don’t want them to have a bad impression right away because then they won’t come back.”
The Rules Experts
Perhaps the greatest example of situations in which referees often get criticized when they should arguably be getting praised is when it comes to rule awareness and interpretations.
“When we’re working with the younger levels, we’re out there being a coach as well,” said Mannin. “We’re trying to make the game safe for the players, but we’re also directing them to the right positions out on the ice.”
At times, officials must play a role in explaining rules to coaches too.
“Those are tough situations,” said Mannin. “You’ll get guys at the Bantam level who have been around for a long time, and they don’t know some rules. They think they do, but they really don’t.”
“When I have a coaches meeting, I’ll have a couple of rules in there, and I’ll ask the group. One of them I do is: ‘Where do you drop the puck when the referee screws up on an icing?’ 90% of them say center ice. That hasn’t been the rule for over ten years.”
In the middle of games, different views over rules or a rule interpretation often leads to conflict, even if the official makes the correct call.
The reality though is officials do make mistakes. Even the best officials in the game make mistakes, just like players and coaches make mistakes. It’s simply part of the game.
“That’s where the negativity is,” said Mannin. “We’re just human beings so we’re not going to be perfect. One thing I tell all officials when I’m doing seminars or trainings is you have to admit your mistakes too.”
Admitting mistakes isn’t easy for anyone, but that type of open and honest communication can help foster mutual respect between coaches and officials.
“I’ve been working really hard with the officials I work with to promote communication,” said Mannin. “A lot of guys don’t want to talk to coaches because, ‘they’re just going to yell at me.’”
“If a coach has a question, we need to go over there, be calm and explain it to them, but we need them to be calm as well. We’ll instruct in our classes that if a coach is standing up on the dashers, we’re not talking to you. Come down to our level. Don’t try to intimidate us. Come down, we’ll talk and get through this. If we made a mistake, we should admit it. ‘Sorry about that, we’ll get it the next time’. It’s not the best scenario, but it’s going to happen.”
The most important thing to remember as games start this season is that everyone has a role to play, and the officials’ role in the game should be respected just like the roles of players and coaches.
“Safety is our key,” said Mannin. “We want the game to be safe and to be played by the rules.”
And if you have a game where the officials do a great job, don’t forget to let them know.
“When you hear all the negative stuff, one little positive thing really goes a long way,” said Mannin.