Referees are quitting, and kids are paying the price

Players with the Mooretown Lady Flags and Chatham-Kent Crush face off at the Moore Sports Complex in October. A shortage of officials has left the Bluewater Referees Association scrambling to cover games. Tara Jeffrey

Tara Jeffrey

With Sarnia-Lambton facing a dire shortage of referees it’s time parents started giving on-ice officials the respect they deserve, says Kirstin Salisbury.

“We need to remember that everyone in these roles is human,” said the mom of two daughters, who are actively involved in minor sports.

“I recognize that most parents think they are expressing their passion and advocating for their player… But I am realizing that we as parents, in an attempt to be super fans and advocates for our athletes, are impacting our children’s’ opportunities.

“Personally, if I was a ref, the pay isn’t worth the harassment I’ve witnessed.”

The Bluewater Referee Association has issued a desperate plea for more on-ice officials as it grapples with dwindling numbers. Minor hockey games are being cancelled outright, especially on weekends, and other games rescheduled for lack of officials.

A trend that began a decade ago was exacerbated by the pandemic, said president Joel Hodgson.

“We’re down to 40 active officials skating, and we’re usually at over 100 in a normal season,” said Hodgson, noting many are facing burnout just weeks into the hockey season. “We’ve had officials skate more hockey than ever before, at a really unsustainable pace. Refereeing isn’t like playing hockey — they’re on the ice for every minute of the game — and if they’re doing two or three games in a row, that’s a lot of time to be skating, and hard on your body.

“We have referees who are easily skating 20 games a week.”

After the pandemic wiped out last year’s hockey season and put recruitment for new refs on hold, many local officials, already nearing retirement age, decided to hang up their skates, Hodgson said, noting Hockey Canada estimates the loss of 10,000 — or one in three — officials ever year.

“When we knew this was coming we reached out to all of our partners and associations, and they’ve all been great at working with us on the scheduling, and promoting for more refs,” he said.

“But even with all that we’ve had to move games and cancel games already.

“So we’re really taking anybody we can get; anyone in the community that wants to come and chip in, we’re happy to try and get them signed on.”

Hodgson said some people have come forward — including retired referees willing to lace up again, and younger athletes interested in taking the training course.

Another bright spot is the women and girls expressing interest.

“I’ve actually been very impressed with the amount of women and girls that have put their names forward,” he said. “We still have a lot of men that officiate women and girls hockey.”

And it’s not just hockey. Salisbury, whose girls also play softball, pointed to a scarcity of local umpires, coaches, board members, team managers and volunteers.

“As a volunteer coach, the commitment and sacrifices aren’t worth the headache of angry parents,” she said. “Calls may be missed, players may play fewer minutes, teams will be built, and perhaps not everyone will agree – but I am asking that we, as parents, try harder to respect these roles and be an example for our children.”

Hodgson echoed Salisbury’s concerns about the way parents and players treat game officials.

“We’ve seen over a decade the kind of maltreatment, and issues with the cost of reffing increasing — that’s all contributed to the decline and really come to a head here over the past year in the pandemic. People just decided it’s not worth it,” he said.

“We want to change the lens on it, where people view referees as part of the hockey community, as opposed to the antagonist out there.”

Anyone interested in becoming a referee can contact bluewaterrefereeassociation@gmail.com