As thankless jobs go, referee certainly ranks among the most visible. No matter the sport, your local official has learned – along with the rules, along with how challenging it is to watch for nearly everything on the ice and generally how to keep one’s wits in the midst of the game’s chaos – that they can’t make everyone happy.
In fact, it probably seems at times they can’t make anyone happy.
But in Massachusetts, along with USA Hockey, great strides are being taken to shine a light not only on the role of the official, but also in the importance of great officiating as a key to hockey’s evolution.
A lot of that is thanks to the continued hard work of Kevin Donovan, the USA Hockey Referee-in-Chief for Massachusetts, his staff, the volunteers and those officials who keep signing up for the chance to make the game a better place.
Earlier this month, some of the top officials in the country gathered at USA Hockey’s Advance Officiating Symposium in Providence, R.I., where nearly 30 Massachusetts officials were among approximately 200 in attendance from more than 30 states.
All were treated to various panels, including “Old Time Hockey Talk,” player safety, controlling emotion, communication, and more, with such luminaries as Olympic coach Ben Smith, USA Hockey’s Officiating Program Director Matt Leaf, former director Mark Rudolph, NHL official Chris Rooney and former official Paul Stewart, as well as new USA Hockey President Mike Trimboli.
It wasn’t an easy ticket.
“The criteria to attend the symposium was to have three consecutive years of either a Level 3 or Level 4,” says Donovan, who noted about 100 officials in Massachusetts meet that criteria. “And this was a reward. It’s a way to reward officials that are dedicated to USA Hockey and know the rules.”
In addition to the experience, there was another perk.
“The Advanced Officiating Symposium to create a tenured status was developed to reward the officials that had longevity and knew the rules,” Donovan says. “They still have to do an open book test and some modules, but their requirements to renew their certification every year drop off tremendously.”
Officials can be a tight-knit bunch, which often comes with the territory of standing together in the middle between two opposing sides on the ice, to say nothing of whatever greets them from the stands, and part of the symposium’s ancillary benefits will be felt for years to come.
“We’re pushing for these officials who are attending the seminar to be mentors to the new officials, be it young or old,” says Donovan, a Long Island native who has been reffing for more than 30 years, dating back to days he might ref games in three states over the course of a weekend. “Truthfully, it’s about giving back, really seeing people advance and getting them to where they want to go.”
Donovan sees his role as one of development with the rewards coming through those victories.
“It’s seeing those successes and the camaraderie of officials and staff,” he says. “It’s the reward of seeing other officials working up the ranks, working their way to college or minor pro or the NHL. That’s the rewarding part. If I wasn’t having fun or if I didn’t see people enjoying themselves, and if I was not able to help influence or promote people, I wouldn’t be volunteering and spending 30 or more hours a week in this role.”
"I’d love to get more officials that are retiring from playing. Maybe they played college or club. They’re in their 20s and they’ve settled down in the Massachusetts area. Here’s a great way to stay involved in the game and make a little money on the side.”
It should also be noted that officials, yes, do very much enjoy the sport of hockey. And they probably don’t want “your team” to lose. But they are human and games for officials are also on-the-job training. Players, coaches, and parents might do well to remember that.
“They also need to understand that kids get to practice, and the coaches and teams have practices, not just games,” says Donovan. “But in the lower-level games, that’s actually practice for the officials. Yes, we have clinics, and we talk to them, and we put them on the ice, and we show them where the positioning is, but they don’t get that until they’re in the game. A player can practice and can still make mistakes, and it’s not like an official is turning around to say, ‘Come on, that’s the worst pass you could have made!’”
And while asking anyone in the stands or on the bench to root for the officials in the game may be a stretch, it is worth considering how they’re helping to advance the sport along with everyone else in the rink.
“The majority of officials are in it because they like the game of hockey and they want to see it be successful,” Donovan says. “You have to have somewhat of a thick skin. But I’m happy to say that Massachusetts Hockey has stepped up to curb abuse, and USA Hockey is also working on that.”
One of the keys, and it comes down to a communication tactic, of sorts, is not to let everything go in one ear and out the other.
“At the symposium, we had a topic for an hour discussing the abuse in sports and officiating,” says Donovan. “I think someone used the phrase, ‘Don’t be a duck.’ Ducks let the water roll off their backs. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. Because if the abuse [is from] a parent, a player or a coach, they think they can continue to get away with that, and then it’s detrimental, especially if that’s a newer official.”
Donovan, and he isn’t alone among officials, would like to see retention of those younger officials.
“It’s about the leagues and the referees working together to make sure that we’re not just continuing to grow a league but can actually support that with regard to officiating the games,” he says. “We’re looking at the officials coming in, and let’s make it as simple for them to complete the process as possible. Not doing away with the curriculum but putting the curriculum all together so they can complete the process. And I think this is about retaining them. I’d love to get more officials that are retiring from playing. Maybe they played college or club. They’re in their 20s and they’ve settled down in the Massachusetts area. Here’s a great way to stay involved in the game and make a little money on the side.”
There’s some nuance to officiating, too, and the more seasoned an official, the more naturally it develops over time.
“You can’t tell a 6-year-old that he has a game misconduct and he’s suspended for the next game,” says Donovan. “And one of the things we always tell officials is to let the coaches know, ‘Hey, coach, hope everything’s going well,’ and, ‘We’re on the same team, so let’s work together.’ Communication is so key is in official.”
Last, but absolutely not least, is knowing the rule book. Earning one’s way to an Advanced Officiating Symposium doesn’t happen by accident.
“A good official knows the game and dives into the USA Hockey rule book and knows the rules,” Donovan says. “And then applies that on the ice, hustles on the ice, always being ready and in the right position. If you make a mistake, you own up to that mistake. You’ll gain respect. And you’re always striving to become better. You’re not afraid to ask questions of a veteran official, and you’re willing to learn.”
Even the most dedicated and respected officials in the country arrived in Providence to show they’re passionate about doing just that.