Making the call: Reffing matters

There is a shortage of refs in the northwest - but these oft-forgotten (or oft-yelled at) officials are key players in the game of hockey

Level 1 refs Ryan Kawinsky

Let’s start with some hockey trivia:

Your team’s goalie breaks his stick and has to borrow the stick of the other player. The play is intense and he can’t leave the net, so a shift change later, his backup stick is shuttled out to him. But now he has two sticks — which is almost as bad as having none. No big deal, you say. He should just toss his teammates’ stick aside and get on with the game, right?

Nope. Wrong.

If he did, he would be breaking the rule that states that goalies who use another players stick must hand off the stick to the player. No tossing, no laying gently behind the net for pick up later, it must be physically handed off. If he doesn’t he is supposed to be given a penalty.

Now, if this seems like a silly rule to you, and a pretty far-fetched situation at that, I’d have to agree with you. But it’s the rule. And do you know whose job is it to know all of these once-in-a-lifetime, bizarro rules?

Your minor hockey referees.

Not only do these officials, who range in age from 12 to their mid-60’s here in Terrace, have to learn what’s inside the 157-page rule book, but they have to be respected enough by coaches and players to enforce these rules, especially the once-in-a-lifetime ones that coaches might not be aware of.

Throw in enthusiastic parents yelling in the stands, and the sheer physicality it takes to sprint up and down the ice 40 – 50 times a game without a break, and you have a demanding job that takes brains, balance and backbone to do right in order to give participants a safe, fair, well-paced game.

This year in Terrace, there are roughly 21 minor hockey officials who rotate shifts at Terrace Minor Hockey Association  (TMHA) games. The amount of officials per game depends on the level of hockey.

For rep hockey, the standard right now is three — one ref and two linesmen. But TMHA’s Referee in Chief Cam MacBean, who has been officiating for over 30 years, says he’d like to see that move to four.

“Kids are smarter, they get away with more,” he says. “And they’re bigger.”

But MacBean can’t move to four officials per game because he just doesn’t have enough refs.

“It’s pretty hard to run a minor hockey association with 21 refs,” he says, noting there is an even greater shortage of refs at the senior level. There are so many other activities for kids to do, they might not think about officiating as an option — or it might not be appealing to them at first thought.

“Why would they go on the ice and take abuse for an hour for ten dollars?” he says, noting that developing a thick skin comes with the territory

“You have to make it fun,” he says. “Don’t get on the kids, let them develop into the official that they can be,” he says. “Don’t give them a free ride but don’t start jumping on them and harassing them because we can’t afford to lose them – this is your future.

“What people have to realize is that it also has to be fun for the ref – and if it isn’t, he’s not coming back. It has to be fun for all. Everyone wants to win, but you have to understand where people are coming from.”

And where refs are coming from, is a place of strong commitment to the game and their community.

To become a ref, the first step is taking an online test and a clinic. The test costs money, but once the new ref has worked 10 games for Terrace Minor Hockey they are reimbursed. After that, refs need to attend a one-day clinic every year, and it’s up to them how far they advance through the system — there are six levels for amateur hockey, with most refs in Terrace being level three or below. To make level four and above, refs need to be 18 years of age and be able to leave Terrace and officiate games in higher leagues — one of the challenges of living in the north. And there are evaluations by referee committee members for every level beyond level two.

Officiating development workshops, like the one coming up here in Terrace in the middle of November, also help refs hone their skills.

“It’s a long work in progress,” says MacBean. But it’s important to have high-caliber officials who are trained well because, as mentioned before, players are smarter.

“If you have people out on the ice that are in over their heads, you have a gong show,” he says. “You get guys sticking each other and slashing, and it’s not fun.”

But refereeing can be a lot of fun, says MacBean, especially when high-caliber tournaments and games come to Terrace and when there is opportunity for travel.

“Once you’ve got your thick skin, you can turn it into a game like it’s supposed to be,” he says.

While Terrace may not have as many refs as MacBean would like, he says there are a few strong young refs working their way up the system. There are also three female refs — but there needs to be more because BC Hockey wants females officiating female games.

Ultimately, the role of a ref is multi-faceted, he says. “Controlling the players is not the refs job, that’s the coaches job,” he says. “Although we get told we’re supposed to control the players all the time. We’re not. We’re supposed to control the game, call penalties … call infractions that you see.”

“You gotta be the boss. You have to learn how to talk to coaches,” he says. “It’s a developed skill. You get a teenager talking to an adult, it can be pretty intimidating. You have to listen, but you have to have the last word.”

But it’s more than what happens on the ice, says MacBean, who says he still has about 10 years of officiating left in him.

“Giving back to your community, that’s a big part. If you don’t put back in, the system dies. You’ve gotta have someone to defend the kids.”