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5 Observations From a First Year Official

By Paul Antonenko, 02/14/22, 11:30AM CST


I started coaching in 1991 and have been around this great game of hockey since I was 4 years old. Now, I am 51 years old and am a rookie again.

I became a referee this year and am the new kid on the block. It is an interesting situation I find myself in, having done so many things for so many years in hockey, but never really taken the opportunity to understand the game from this lens. So, I thought I would share some observations from my time as a first year official that parents, players, coaches, and administrators, can maybe use to enhance their own perspective.

Observation 1: It is way more fun doing this than I thought. 

Being a referee is not as stressful as I thought it would be. Like many, I have heard, and in some cases witnessed, the ugly interactions that can occur between referees and coaches or parents. However, the reality of being an official has been much to the contrary for me, and the time on the ice, being able to teach the kids (and coaches) about the rules, face-offs, and listen to them having fun has been VERY enjoyable. 

There is so much social media and other reporting about abuse, one can only assume it will be a bad experience, but from what I’ve seen, the best parts of officiating are too often left untold.

We need to emphasize the fun factor for officials, understand that they are all learning too, and accept that mistakes will be made. 

Observation 2: You REALLY can’t see everything as a referee. 

I always knew officials strive to see everything, make appropriate calls, keep the kids safe, and give back to this great game. I also knew they had a different and more difficult viewing angle than the bench or in the stands.

I vastly underestimated how challenging or borderline impossible it is to see everything at ice level though. So, parents, coaches, and players: Do not expect it! 

Here is a simple example: Referees try their best to keep the play between the front referee and the back referee. So, imagine a square, where the two diagonal corners are the officials. Now imagine 10, highly skilled, good-sized players moving around inside said square at a good pace. Eye lines to the puck and play WILL get disrupted. It is inevitable. Even though officials try to make sure they move enough to see the play at hand, invariably something can, and does, get in the way.

Another factor is how many things you need to focus on simultaneously. Making the correct call on a potential off-side play is typically fairly simple, but when it’s a close call and you’re also trying to stay out of the way of the play (getting hit with dump-ins isn’t fun for anyone!) and determine if the body contact/check on the player dumping the puck was legal, the chances of an error increases significantly because you can only process so many things at once.

Even with two pairs of eyes out there, things will be missed. Or, just as importantly, infractions will be seen that others might not see.   

Observation 3:  The exact same play does not look the same for ANYONE in the building.  

Many people can assess when a call should be made, but you will not see the play the same way as another person who is 10 feet from you, much less 100 feet from you. As a coach or fan, you are a fixed point so any movement of players will create a different viewing angle of that player or situation. The consistent change is typically gradual though as even the slightest elevation helps create a wider field of vision.

As a referee, the biggest ‘aha’ moment for me was how much my angle of view can be dictated by my skating, position, and speed, relative to the players one the ice. If my speed and angle match that of the players moving down the ice, I’m able to maintain the field of view I want, but when certain situations, such as avoiding play in the corner, force me to move unexpectedly, my viewing angle can change far more rapidly than what I saw as a coach or parent and at times make it hard to see the whole play.

All of this equals the impossibility of ANYONE being able to see the same play, at the same point in time, with the same viewing angle. Period.

Observation 4: The rules are written in a way that is as black and white as possible, but interpreting them, particularly as a new official (or even an experienced one, frankly), is not as clear cut as one would think. 

I will be the first to admit that I had never really read the rule book. Being around the game my whole life, I felt like I had a pretty good grip on the rules, and I had too many other things to do such as practice plans, administer tryouts, communicate with players and parents and, oh yeah, be a parent too!

It has been eye-opening to recognize how many data points are being assessed by a referee even when considering what looks to be a simple call, or in many cases, a non-call.  

For instance, regarding a check in a checking division: Was there an attempt to play the puck? Where was the player’s stick? Did they extend their hands? Did the other player simply lose their balance and it was simply body contact? Was it just a collision? Was the check too far away from the boards? Was there reckless endangerment by the player delivering the physical contact? Was the receiving player vulnerable? 

Those are a few of the questions that need to be answered before raising your arm to signal a penalty, or deciding not to. Add Observation 2 and 3 into this, and you get some sense of the task at hand. 

My last observation:  Referees Care!  

Perhaps the most rewarding part of my experience has been getting to know other officials and seeing the hidden parts of how they approach the game. They truly want to get every call right but know they can’t always. They agonize over mistakes that they know they made, go through it repeatedly in their minds, review the rule book so they have a better understanding, and will talk to their partners and other officials to learn so they can be better. 

Simply, they care even more than I realized, and it makes me proud to put wear the stripes with them.

I would encourage anyone that has an interest in becoming a referee to reach out to your local association to learn more. You might be surprised how your perspective changes and how much fun you have.

Paul Antonenko
The View From Center Ice Blog

As a former goaltender growing up in the Detroit, MI area, Antonenko finished his high school hockey in Thief River Falls, MN, and got his coaching start with East Grand Forks Green Wave High School in 1991 while attending the University of North Dakota. He is a USA Hockey Level 4 Coach, USA Hockey Level 1 Official, Former Hockey Development Director for Armstrong/Cooper Youth Hockey, Former Coaches Board Chair for Orono Youth Hockey, and has coached teams of all ages and skill levels since 1991, girls and boys, from Mites through high school throughout the upper Midwest.  He is the father of 3 girls and 2 boys who have all played through various levels of competitive hockey including the Girls Tier I Elite League outside of Minnesota, Minnesota High School Hockey, and juniors in the USPHL Premier League.  

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