When you travel over 950 miles inside the state of Minnesota to nine State Tournament sites over the course of three days, you see a lot of things. Most of the things are good – beautiful classic arenas and pristine new arenas, caravans of colorfully decorated cars, 11 year-olds wearing suits or dresses with converse shoes. A few are not so good – some unnecessary penalties and a lot of roadkill along the highway. And some things are interesting – like seeing more bald eagles (3) than gas stations (0) while driving along the Rainy River on the Canadian border in between Baudette and International Falls.
Of course, every year, my favorite part of Minnesota Hockey’s State Tournament weekend is seeing the excitement on the faces of boys and girls who have worked so hard for these cherished moments. And seeing them meet up with their families in the arena lobby following a win or loss. The hugs and words of encouragement I see are things I could write endlessly about.
But this year, I want to write about the people you didn’t often see, and rarely thought about.
I remember my youth hockey days, and I still smile thinking about the stuff I got to do with my teammates during tournaments. But I never thought about the work that went into putting those tournaments on. The people that got banners made, pucks ordered, announcing done, music played and locker rooms decorated. Those banquets that you went to the night before the biggest weekend of the season didn’t just happen. The food didn’t cook itself and the dishes definitely didn’t clean themselves (I know from many years of experience that never happens).
Much of the same could be said for team managers, parents and coaches. The hotel decorations, team dinners, player and team banners at the rink and community pride on display bring inspiration to current and future players.
So many people worked to make the weekend special for these kids. That’s what makes hockey in Minnesota so special. Those volunteers that give up their time to do this.
There is another overlooked group of people that make our State Tournaments possible. The refs. With a major decline across all youth sports in number of officials, they have been at the top of my mind for several months, and I paid close attention to them throughout the weekend.
I’m so glad I did too because I came away extremely impressed and driven to find more ways to support the officials. Many of them spent an entire weekend away from their own family to ref two or three hockey games, and they were proud and excited to do it because of how much they care about this game. Plus, the Minnesota Hockey Officials’ Association had a supervisor at every State Tournament that spent the weekend evaluating and coaching the officials on the ice.
On top of their passion and professionalism, they did a great job. I hardly witnessed any “mistakes”, and the handful of calls that drew the ire of parents or coaches always seemed to be borderline judgement calls that often result in frustration from one team or the other.
One other thought occurred to me this weekend while watching the best players in the state compete. What if everyone who wanted to see better officials employed the same tactics for that as we do for building our youth programs? If you want to have a great Bantam or 15U team in Minnesota, it all starts with getting as many boys and girls involved at 8U as possible and providing a supportive development model while allowing them to make mistakes as they learn.
That seems like a pretty good blue print for great officials too. Encourage your player to be an official and treat all officials with the type of respect and growth mindset you would want other adults to show your child in that situation. I guarantee the number and quality of officials would skyrocket if everyone bought in.
Until then, please make sure you’re thanking these officials for making the special experiences the kids are getting possible.
Congratulations to all of the State Tournament participants, and thank you to everyone that is a part of this unique and special experience we call community-based hockey!