Since the implementation of the American Development Model, growth in the ranks of young hockey players has taken off.
By creating an atmosphere that promotes skill development and a life-long passion for the game, the ADM has been a catalyst for opening the door so more kids can enjoy playing the game.
But while the future looks bright on that side of the puck, a startling reduction in the number of qualified officials is creating a cause for concern.
To reverse this trend, a commitment to recruit new officials and retain the good officials currently in the system is a definite must.
Recent surveys of officials cite a lack of opportunity and local politics as the main reasons why officials shed the stripes. What that means, simply, is referees feel they aren’t getting enough games or provided an opportunity to advance because those who are in charge of the scheduling give themselves and their buddies the lion’s share of the games.
“It’s that old boy’s network,” said Matt Leaf, director of the Officiating Education Program at USA Hockey.
“We mostly lose officials because of ourselves, in terms of the environment that is created locally.”
Leaf said the onus for making sure that doesn’t happen falls on local hockey associations, the ones who write the checks for officials. It’s all part of a growing line of communication between hockey associations and referees that USA Hockey is trying to foster.
In a recent survey conducted with local youth hockey associations, it was discovered that more than two-thirds have no formal relationship or direct lines of communication with officials who work their games.
“We have a number of different resources that we provide on how to do things the right way, but we can’t force officials groups to follow them because of their independent contractor status,” Leaf said.
However, not all referee associations have this problem. In order to avoid finding yourself on the outside looking in, sometimes all it takes is a little initiative.
“I don’t think there’s really favoritism, it’s more so who communicates the most,” said Samantha Hiller, an official in Boulder, Colo., who estimates she works between 200 and 300 games a year at the Bantam and Midget levels.
“If you talk to the schedulers a lot, you’re going to get games. If you show them you care and want to work, and want to be involved with the other referees, they’re going to put you on games.”
Hiller started officiating when she was 12 and is now in her ninth season. She calls her referee association “like a family,” and said they helped her stick with it when she was younger. Now, she is trying to return the favor by looking after newer officials in her local association.
“I try to tell them about all the doors they can open, all the opportunities they can have, especially when they’re young.” Hiller said. “I try to tell them that they have a lot of opportunities in front of them, not to mention when you’re 12 years old that’s the best paycheck you’re ever going to get.”
Justin Esterly is entering his eighth season as an official. Like Hiller, he started out when he was young and now officiates between 200 and 250 games a year in and around the Twin Cities.
He said he’s never seen someone leave the program because of a lack of games, citing the large number of lower level games that are played in Minnesota.
In terms of moving up to officiating higher-level games, he said it’s all about getting more comfortable out on the ice.
“When it comes to younger officials, at least with my experience, it’s a learning process. They want to slowly move you into the higher levels,” he said.
“It comes down to how much time that there is, how many games there are. You can’t really blame the guys who are scheduling it. It’s more how many games there are to be able to officiate.”
Another reason for a lack of officials is there is a reduced pool to recruit from. Unlike in football or baseball, where you only need to be familiar with the rules to officiate, in hockey you need to know how to skate to be able to officiate.
That’s why, Leaf said, the majority of referees are former or current players. Both Hiller and Esterly played through high school.
Both love doing it. Esterly called officiating “a blast” and a good way to “stick with the game you love.”
Hiller, who has also officiated Div. III women’s college games, said officiating is hard work, but has been a rewarding experience.
“Once you’re in the community and start making these friends that you’ll have forever and you work these great games, it’s the best seat in the house,” she said.
“It’s an awesome experience and I love it, but there’s definitely a lot of bridges that people have to cross to stay in it.”
Photos By Jim Rosvold, Michael Martin
Rules Enforcement Enhanced By Game Reporting Tool
In past hockey seasons, sharing game reports from one USA Hockey Affiliate to the next was a convoluted process. Now, with advances in technology, the long arm of the law has gotten longer.
A new singular, streamlined source of communication has created a simpler and more effective process for league administrators to track those who have been whistled for aggressive penalties during the course of the season.
The USA Hockey Online Game Report System provides officials with an easy method to submit game reports to league and Affiliate administrators. By accessing USAHockey.com from their smartphone, officials can log on and fill out the required information and submit a game report as soon as they get off the ice.
With the progressive suspension rule going into effect next season, the online game reporting system makes it easier for associations to keep track of aggressive penalties.
“It’s a way to track and simplify, to hold players accountable,” said Matt Leaf, director of the Officiating Education Program.
“For example, let’s say a player gets his third major penalty for an aggressive infraction, the Affiliate’s administrator will automatically get an email that says, ‘player so-and-so picked up his third major penalty, and is to be suspended for three games.’ They will then forward that email to the coach of that player’s team so he knows.”
In the past, Leaf said, Affiliates would have officials either fax or mail their game reports, upload them to their online systems or, in some cases, the incidents would not be reported at all.
USA Hockey launched the system in November 2012, with nine Affiliates utilizing the technology last season. This season that number has expanded to 29, and every Affiliate is at least aware of its existence.
— Ryan Satkowiak