Help Wanted: The Rising Need for Quality Officials

As The Ranks Of Youth Hockey Players Grows, A Call Goes Out To Recruit And Retain Officials

Despite the concerns that a number of officials have expressed about not getting enough games, Justin Esterly, left, and Samantha Hiller, above, say they stay busy during the course of the hockey season.Despite the concerns that a number of officials have expressed about not getting enough games, Justin Esterly, left, and Samantha Hiller, above, say they stay busy during the course of the hockey season.

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 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


I am a supervisor for our

I am a supervisor for our local association, and I can tell you that the number one reason Refs leave is from Abuse from fans and coaches. Until USA Hockey deals with this, referees will continue to leave. The ZERO Tolerance posters hanging in the arena just don't cut it!!!

Recruiting New Officials

While I agree that is some areas the 'good old boy' network definitely affects recruitment and retention of officials, that is not the case in most areas. And I firmly disagree with the comment that, "We mostly lose officials because of ourselves...." Besides, if that statement were true, then the problem starts at the top and the blame should not be sent down to the local level.

Proof of this is in the way officials are portrayed and treated by everyone, even USA Hockey. In fact, in the USA Hockey Magazine, there is hardly ever any mention of officials, let alone any discussion about officiating, which obviously is a very integral part of the game. By publicly ignoring or omitting the importance of officials, the message being sent is that officials are a minor issue and more of a necessary evil than a crucial authority to be respected.

In my opinion, this entire article is a great example. It's mostly negative and concentrates on some of the problems. It should have been written as a positive article outlining the need for more officials, the move underway to recruit new officials, and the benefits of joining the ranks. If you want to encourage someone to join your group, you don't spend the majority of time talking about the negatives.

I've been an official with AHAUS and USA Hockey for 31 years. I've also worked college, juniors, and semi-pro hockey. In that time, I've averaged probably 300 games a year, while working in 11 States. And in all that time, the number one reason I hear from officials who are leaving or who have left the officiating ranks is that they are tired of the abuse. I personally know many officials who have left or who were thinking about leaving because of the abuse, myself included.

I have heard time and time again everywhere I've worked that the abuse they are subjected to by the players, coaches, and fans has gotten to be too much for them to handle. And this is especially true among the younger officials. It's extremely difficult for them to handle some out-of-control parent or coach who is loudly berating them in front of everyone, often with profanities.

We, as senior officials, can only discuss the matter with the young official and explain how best to handle it. But alas, our hands are tied and the only recourse for dealing with an obnoxious fan is to throw them out of the rink. And the most we can do to an irate coach is expel them from the game. While either of these can file formal complaints against the officials because there is a system in place for them to do so, the officials have no formal complaint system to ensure coaches and fans suffer any recourse for their behavior. In other words, the system is stacked again the official. If stronger penalties were allowed by rule or enforced by the affiliates, especially against unruly coaches, this would be a big step in showing support for the officials.

I once talked to the owner of a tournament company about providing a walkie talkie to the scorers so they could contact the tournament director when we encounter unruly fans. They have become alot more prevalent in current years, but his response was basically (my words, not his) that it's all about the money and he doesn't want to do anything to discourage teams from coming to the tournament and he was not interested in making it safer and more enjoyable for everyone. It's attitudes like this that discourage referees and it has nothing to do with the 'good old boy' network.

You failed to mention that these 'good old boys' are also very good at mentoring and teaching new officials, so they can learn the position and improve their skills. Reading the rule book and going to a seminar once a year only accounts for about 10% of the learning process. 90% is learned on the ice doing the job and listening to the senior officials on what to do and how to do it better. If it wasn't for us good old boys teaching, helping, and evaluating, needless to say, newer officials would never progress at all.

As was mentioned in the article, the pool from which officials come basically consists entirely of players. When players see parents and coaches abusing officials, they are being taught this is acceptable behavior, so they tend to do the same thing. Players who see and hear all this abuse directed towards officials will definitely not want to become an official and subject themselves to the same treatment. And again, this has nothing to do with the 'good old boy' network - it has to do with changing attitudes and more strongly supporting officials.

As an example, here's one way to get started with supporting officials; provide a rule book to all coaches and require them to pass a 100 question open book exam. Right now, there is absolutely no requirement whatsoever in USA Hockey for a coach to know any of the rules of hockey! How can a coach teach players if they don't even know the rules? We run into this all the time where the coach will start screaming at the officials and it turns out they have no idea what they're talking about. Watching the NHL on TV does not make someone an expert on the rules of USA Hockey.

The bottom line is, until these unsportsmanlike attitudes are curtailed, stronger penalties imposed, and the abuse is no longer allowed to persist, we will continue to have problems with recruiting and retaining young officials. They are, after all, our future in the profession.

If players see that officials are respected by fans and coaches, and see a strong support system to curtail abuse, then, and only then, will the list of applicants increase.

In order to make all this happen, changes must come from the top and need to be applied nationwide. A definitive system of rules, regulations, and enforcement must be put in place, along with a formal complaint system and significant penalties. Without this, nothing will change.


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