“If your boss came to you every morning and told you to ‘smarten the F up cause you’re a dumb bitch,’ would you like it? Well that’s exactly what’s happening to the referees by the parents, and fouler language than that,” said Jim Humphrey, president of the Vancouver Island Amateur Hockey Association.
Referees for all age groups and in all sports must deal with verbal abuse and the threat of physical abuse from spectators, coaches and players. It’s an issue that is especially common in hockey.
Penticton police are currently investigating a case that involves a Kamloops man who allegedly threatened the referees after his son’s game.
“Inside of a hockey rink, it seems that they get a free pass, and I think the days of these free passes need to disappear,” Humphrey said.
According to Humphrey, abuse has caused hundreds of referees to quit officiating for the Vancouver Island Amateur Hockey Association over the years. Humphrey believes this aggressive behaviour is ingrained in hockey culture. He remembers multiple incidences when the police had to be called to deal with violent parents.
“The biggest one took 17 police officers to control the fighting inside the hockey rink by the spectators in the stands,” Humphrey said.
In the last month, Humphrey said at least 13 parents have been kicked out or banned from games for getting aggressive or verbally abusing the referees.
“We’ve tried many different things to try to deal with it but pretty much all of them have been unsuccessful,” he said.
But there is one thing that has been helping recently, and that’s the attitude of other parents.
“In the past parents weren’t wanting to get involved. They would just sit and be quiet and just hope the game ended. What’s happened now is that there are parents that are actually standing up in the game and they’re telling their peers to sit down and behave themselves,” Humphrey said.
Humphrey said parents have also started reporting abuse to their local Minor Hockey Associations.
“Now that this is out and parents are actually turning in the bad guys, we can investigate. Now, rather than punish all the parents, we can just take sanctions against those parents that are the ones doing the abusive behaviour,” Humphrey said.
Kamloops is not without its share of abuse incidents, either.
Jeremy Salamandyk, ex-equipment manager for TRU’s WolfPack hockey team, works as a security guard at various minor hockey tournaments in Kamloops.
“I’ve seen parents freak out. A lot of times they’ll throw stuff on the ice or they’ll have vulgar language and profanities directed at the referees. I’ve seen parents at the [Kamloops International Bantam Ice Hockey Tournament] go after the officials in the parking lot,” Salamandyk said. “A couple times I got in between the officials and the parents. Once a dad tried to get in the referee’s room and I had to grab the dad and pull him out.”
Sean Raphael, referee chief for BC Hockey, said referee abuse seems more common in minor hockey because, with over 50,000 players, it’s the most abundant level of hockey in the province. Minor hockey is often officiated by level one, or 12- to 16-year-old, referees.
“I think a lot of it is a lack of information that the spectator or the person criticizing the officials have,” Raphael said. “Rules are constantly being updated and changed. New rules are being created and old rules are being taken out on a bi-annual basis.”
A prerequisite to officiate under BC Hockey is a four-hour online course through Hockey Canada. After that there are many training opportunities for referees, from clinics to summer courses. Referees have their own coaches and supervisors who watch their games and provide feedback. Referees must also get recertified annually.
“Hockey Canada also launched the rulebook as a mobile app with a live search function on it. It’s free of charge and it can look up any rule, any incident, right through the search function,” Raphael said.
Kevin Bennett started working as a referee at age 12 and 15 years later he still loves it, despite often being the subject of verbal abuse. On March 3, Bennett was one of the referees that a Kamloops Blazers player got upset with after the game. The player pushed one of the referees and yelled at Bennett. But Bennett didn’t take it personally.
“He’s a good guy. He doesn’t mean to do it, just his emotions were high,” Bennett said. “You can’t always make them happy, but you have to call the game fairly.”
Cam Weir, TRU business student and ex-WolfPack hockey player, said he has seen verbal abuse get so extensive that it pushed fairness out of the picture.
“One coach that I had in junior had a horrible relationship with this one ref. It just seemed completely odd how one-sided every game he reffed was. There were a lot more calls against us and some of them were borderline almost made up,” Weir said.
“When you start getting on the back of a referee, they tend to create a bias, whether they realize it or not and they’re not going to give you any favour, that’s for sure,” Weir said.
In addition to coaches, Weir has also seen parents and players swear at and insult referees.
“A lot of people, a lot of players and a lot of coaches get caught up in the moment and really don’t see the ref as a person.” According to Raphael, referee abuse has always been an issue, but the amount of media attention it gets has been growing in the past few years, and that might be part of the solution.
“We’re always looking for ways to raise awareness. We’re always trying to communicate the rules that are in place to try and prevent it from happening, and to encourage positive attention towards the officials,” Raphael said.
One of the new ways BC Hockey is doing this is through “Make the Call” contests on their website.
“We have a [video] that shows an infraction or incident that occurred and we quiz people to answer the right question with the multiple choice of what the penalty was,” Raphael said. “At the end of the two weeks we announce a winner and then we reveal the answer to teach everybody about that specific rule.”
There have been about 550 entries into the “Make the Call” contests since they began in October. The prizes have ranged from clothing to tickets to watch the Vancouver Canucks and meet the referees. Raphael said the contests have been successful and will continue on the officiating page of BC Hockey’s website.
“Unlike players, officials don’t really get to practice, so the games tend to be their opportunity to practice,” Raphael said. “Officials are constantly learning just like a player is learning. The officials are always going to make mistakes out there but they are going to hopefully learn from those mistakes.”
“We always encourage people to try officiating if they think that they know the rules.”