It’s hard to like referees sometimes.
As much as we tell ourselves “they’re volunteers,” “they’re not perfect,” or “it’s just a game,” we can still find ourselves incessantly unsatisfied with the performance of a referee. We can’t stand them, but at the same time, we can’t ever imagine being them.
So we fall into a familiar diatribe – the referee’s suck, and they’re always against us. Sounds silly when you say it, but don’t pretend like you don’t ever think it.
And it’s that relationship that is becoming increasingly problematic in the world of hockey. Indeed, it even has the potential to ruin our game, with the United States recently identifying referee retention as a dire situation for the sport.
Over a five-year study, they found only 15 to 20 per cent of referees were staying in the job.
Bring it home, and it’s the biggest challenge for the president of the New Zealand Ice Hockey Referees Association, Ryan Hissong.
Ryan is a New Yorker by heritage, has refereed pro hockey leagues, international tournaments, and is studying his PhD in behavioural psychology. He’s brought a raft of experience with him to New Zealand, and is perhaps the best person to tackle this head on.
“Speaking to the guys over in the US, they’re facing a lot of the same challenges we’re facing here but on a much bigger scale,” Ryan says.
“It’s that idea that the sport is growing much faster than the rate at which we can get new officials trained, interested, and retained.
“There are some great incentives, but at the end of the day, our biggest challenge is getting people willing to put a sweater on for the first time.”
I mean, why would you? You have sweaty hockey players yelling at you constantly, telling you how bad you are, and sometimes calling you a cheat. All the while, you’re giving up your time, energy, and money to do it.
But the fault does not lie with the referees. It lies with us as hockey players.
“It’s easy as a player to sit there and go off at the refs right?” Ryan says.
“But if you go out there as a ref, you realise this is a whole different kettle of fish than you would have expected.”
So let’s break down the walls and try to change a little bit of our hockey-mad brains to try and understand how referees call our games.
First and foremost, officials have to have a feel for the game. It’s not as simple as calling every little incident in any given match.
“You could probably go out in any hockey game and call a penalty every 30 seconds if you really had your heart set on finding every little thing,” Ryan says.
“But that doesn’t make for a very fun or entertaining hockey game. So for me, that’s priority number one – having a feel for the game and understanding where that line is.”
And it makes sense. Would you want your own team penalised every time even the slightest bit of contact is made?
Along with that, according to Ryan, one of the biggest issues with New Zealand hockey is that the speed of play has greatly increased over the past 10 to 15 years, however players haven’t necessarily evolved their hockey awareness, stick-handling, and skating to support it.
“If you can imagine giving a 16 year old a V12 with shoddy brakes, it’s not going to go well,” Ryan said.
“I think that’s a big challenge calling a hockey game here because you have to figure out “OK is this person falling because they aren’t a very good skater, or is it because they’ve been tripped up.”
Ryan also highlights the highly emotional nature of hockey, which can often draw people into a false sense of rationality. We think everything is going against us, simply because we’re down on goals or there’s something big riding on the match.
It’s important to remember that officials aren’t against you for the sake of being against you, nor are they trying to screw you over.
“For our officials, they aren’t ever going out saying “Oh I’m going to blow this game”. They’re always trying their best to ref a fair game,” Ryan says.
“And I mean, we as humans are all terribly biased and sometimes as a coach you’re getting screwed, but the reality is, you’ve probably got away with just as many or more which you’re not thinking about.”
“There’s always going to be some degree of error in any human pursuit and that’s always been a part of the game. But I think it’s really about communication and making sure guys understand that you’re out there to call a fair game and you’re willing to work with them.”
“Just being honest with players goes a long way and not playing into our human nature of being combative about it. Just saying this is what I saw, that’s why I called it, or I didn’t see it, and just acknowledging that.”
In more competitive circles of hockey in New Zealand, particularly the NZIHL, some fans and players have promptly asked for a higher level of officiating.
Some have even called upon the league to have import referees come in and take the reins to ensure a higher quality is reached.
However, Ryan highlights the very real dangers of that proposition with the general consensus worldwide saying it’s a nail in the coffin for your entire local programme.
“It’s one thing to bring in a player where you’ve got a whole system in place to billet them and feed them and travel them around,” Ryan said.
“But for a referee, you’re looking upwards of $70,000 dollars to bring a guy over and supplement the income they’re losing from their job, travel, accommodation etc.
“At the end of the day, if that money dries up, or you can’t find people that are available, you just had all of the potential development opportunities taken up by these imports.”
And don’t forget accountability. There are a lot of things that determine the outcome of a hockey game – including how many goals you score. Blaming a ref for one or two calls doesn’t change that.
Ryan and his team are constantly trying to break down the barriers between players and referees, making sure they’re all on the same page, knowing one another’s role, and respecting each other for what they provide to the hockey community.
“It’s a big focus for us, as far as domestic growth goes,” Ryan said.
“Bringing a culture into the players and getting them on board with understanding that if you don’t have refs, you don’t have hockey games.
“They have just as big a stake in trying to grow our ranks as we do ourselves.”
Written By Sam Hewat.