Every year, around 30,000 youth hockey games are played in the State of Hockey. That means 30,000 times that men and women donned the black and white stripes as officials, giving their time and energy to support our great game. Unfortunately, they are too often treated poorly by adults and kids alike – as targets for criticism and, in some cases, outright abuse.
“The culture needs to change within the hockey community,” Dave LaBuda, USA Hockey national referee-in-chief, said in an interview earlier this summer. “When an official, who is already facing demands of family and work, comes into an environment where they aren’t enjoying themselves, it makes it harder to retain them over the long haul. This issue has been growing for a long time. We need to change that.”
While efforts have been made to reverse this growing trend, including the creation of the game’s first-ever officiating task force, which shared its early recommendations at USA Hockey’s Annual Congress in Denver this past June, there is still much work to be done. One way to diffuse some of the unnecessary tension that exists and confrontations that occur on the ice is for all involved to simply understand the “zebras” a bit better.
Scott Kuhl, president of the Minnesota Hockey Officials Association, agrees.
“Officials are human beings,” Kuhl said. “And they make mistakes like everybody else. Just like the players, just like the coaches, and just like the spectators in the stands. The understanding of the officials, and not necessarily officiating, is incredibly important.”
Kuhl shared his thoughts on what people should know about hockey officials:
- Officials come from all walks of life – “Officials can be students, former or current players or coaches, or in the professional fields. We have doctors, lawyers and judges. But when the game is going on, their only job is to be an official. There’s no status, there’s no hierarchy; they’re all out there trying to officiate a youth activity. And after the game, they go back to their lives, just like the rest of us.”
- They’re educated – “These officials have fairly rigorous tasks to perform and hoops to jump through to become certified officials, including seminars, online education modules and testing. I think that gets lost on the average person.”
- Officiating is a big time commitment – “In addition to the educational components, there’s the time on the ice, away from their families and other things they may enjoy doing. Now, it’s a voluntary activity, and they are paid. But they sign up and commit their time with the expectation that they’re going to be able to do it without abuse. Just like those working in the concession stand or penalty box.”
- They do it to give back to the game they love – “There are a number of reasons people become referees. At some point in your journey through the game of hockey, you realize you can’t play the game anymore. But you still love to be around the game and love to give back. A smaller percentage have aspirations of officiating at higher levels. But the vast majority do it to give back to their local associations.”
- Officials feel guilty when they make a mistake – “Officials have a conscience and none of us want to make a mistake. In all my years of officiating, I knew I made a mistake before anyone else. By and large, most officials will own up to it immediately. Officials don’t like making mistakes. They’re out there trying to do the best job they can to keep the game safe and fair for the kids.”
- They don’t care who wins – “I don’t know a single official that really cares what the scoreboard says. Contrary to popular opinion, officials don’t lean one way or the other. There’s no agenda. We’ve all heard the saying, ‘call it both ways.’ But there’s truly no such thing. You call what’s in front of you. Officials are 100% reactionary. We don’t make calls based on anticipation. We have to see it, hear it, experience it before our arm goes up in the air.”
- Officials don’t mind feedback – “Officials don’t mind receiving feedback, as long as the people delivering it are qualified to do so and it’s delivered in a respectful way. Now, that respect goes both ways. Officials have to respect coaches and players as well. Good communication is good for the game.”
Simply put, ice hockey needs officials. The games can’t go on without them—they keep our kids safe. That means everyone involved with the game should treat them with respect.
With all that said, according to Kuhl, this is an issue that goes beyond hockey.
“We know this lack of respect for one another is not just a hockey problem or a youth sports problem, it’s a societal problem,” Kuhl said. “It’s in our schools, our government and private industry. At the end of the day, we all have opinions and can disagree, but we can certainly do it civilly. Hopefully, more exposure to the issue can help put us on the right path.”