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The anecdotes and stories are as horrifying and embarrassing as they are indicative of a scourge within youth hockey.
There’s a clear, serious issue with referees being verbally abused and physically threatened by unstable parents, coaches and even sometimes players at all levels of US youth hockey, and it’s resulting in a severe shortage of on-ice officials in hockey hotbeds like Massachusetts.
The examples are as endless as they are pathetic.
One official needed a police escort after a game featuring 8-year-old mite players, which is mind-blowing. In other instances, Mass Hockey said a female referee quit in the middle of a series of games because of parent harassment, that a parent came onto the ice during a game trying to get to a referee, and another parent went into the scorer’s box to berate an opposing player over a penalty committed against her child.
Massachusetts hockey estimates that they’re down nearly 900 referees over the last 18 months in part due to the COVID outbreak, but perhaps even more so due to the barrage of verbal abuse and boorish behavior exhibited during youth hockey games.
“These are just a few examples of what is going on every weekend,” said Mass Hockey in a statement released last month. “The constant harassment over calls, over the split-second decisions [the referees] are making on the ice has taken its toll. We ask you to practice patience and good judgement. The children are all watching us and following our example. We all need to make a better effort to respect the officials and keep them working.”
There are videos as well, like this one with referees locked inside an officials’ dressing room, calling the police, following a game with angry parents being heard banging and yelling outside the door after the game was over.
It’s resulted in some cancellations of games in Massachusetts, but more often has meant just one official for youth hockey games that normally had two in the past. Customarily it’s best to have a veteran official paired with a youngster to show them the refereeing ropes in tandems, but that’s a luxury that hasn’t been possible much this season.
It’s become routine to see teenaged novice officials refereeing mites games by themselves, and some referees being forced to officiate three, four or five games in a row due to the shortage. It’s meant additional side money for those interested in picking up extra games, but it also can lead to burning out the few, proud referees that have been left standing.
Incidents in recent years have precipitated hockey governing bodies like Mass Hockey and USA Hockey to institute a “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to harassing officials, and guilty parties will face suspensions or bans in future games.
The truth of it is that an organization like Massachusetts Hockey does 1,000s of games every weekend, and the vast majority of them go off without a hitch.
All it takes is a few unhinged parents and coaches, unfortunately, to mess it up for everyone.
“It’s just a few bad apples, really, that kind of spoil the bunch,” said Massachusetts Hockey President Bob Joyce to GBH News. “99.9% of our parents are great, but it just takes a few that create uncomfortable situations in the ranks — abuse of officials, coaches harassing officials, kind of not understanding that, just like coaches and players who make mistakes, so do officials.
"Our officials are everyday people just like our parents, who have real jobs but try to work a side job to help our kids play a game, earn a little extra income and give back to the game. It would appear that many people, for whatever reason, have lost this understanding and somehow believe that our officials need to be at the same level as what they see on TV at the college or NHL level. We ask you to practice patience and good judgement. The children are all watching us and following our example. We all need to make a better effort to respect the officials and keep them working."
None of this is surprising, or shocking, unfortunately.
The hockey community continues to show they have a lot of work to do, whether it’s a high school crowd in Pittsburgh orchestrating horribly abusive chants toward a female goaltender on a boys hockey team.
Or a group of parents that spilled onto the ice to brawl with youth hockey players just a few days ago in Tewksbury in an incident that's seen all these ridiculous parents banned from USA Hockey and Mass Hockey-sanctioned hockey games.
It honestly sometimes feels like not much has changed for the better since an incident 20 years ago where one hockey dad actually murdered another hockey dad during a dispute at Reading’s Burbank Arena that stemmed from an incident between youth players on the ice.
So what’s the lesson here?
It’s simply that everybody, hockey parents, coaches, players, administrators and fans alike, need to do better and set the gold standard of behavior at youth hockey games for the children. It’s about treating a hockey referee like you would want your kid to be treated if they were trying to earn a few bucks refereeing youth hockey games. USA Hockey, Massachusetts hockey and many local volunteers are attempting to bolster the number of referees available for youth games, and the early returns have been encouraging.
But youth hockey will run into the same existential problems if everybody’s behavior doesn’t change.
At the end of the day, youth hockey is about the kids, and about fostering a love for the game while teaching lessons about life and about sportsmanship. None of that is possible when the role models around them are act like a bunch of yahoos while losing sight of exactly what they are doing there in the first place.
Thank the officials after your child’s youth hockey game, try to remember it’s supposed to be fun and listen to the words of former NHLer Ian Moran if you’re ever tempted to unload on a referee simply trying to officiate a 10U hockey game.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.