When Canada's World Junior hockey team
recently won gold, and the crowd linked arms and sang our national
anthem, I was filled with pride.
However, I was dismayed as those same patriotic Canadian hockey fans proceeded to mercilessly boo the referees as they received their awards. This very disdain and blatant disrespect of hockey referees is like a loose thread in our country's perfect red, maple-leafed jersey that must be quickly removed before the entire jersey unravels before our very eyes.
According to Hockey Canada's website, approximately 10,000 referees quit each year in our country. Today's hockey fans and coaches hurl vulgar insults at referees like rock-filled snowballs, smashing the officials' confidence, and stinging their self-worth. Witty, generalized comments like "Hey ref, I've seen better eyes on a potato," can be easily ignored. It's derogatory and personalized affronts that cannot.
However, this is not simply a question of name-calling. In 2013, there were two separate cases a short time apart — one at the Preston Auditorium in Cambridge — in which minor hockey referees were assaulted or allegedly assaulted in off-ice incidents.
As a level-five referee for more than 20 years, I can attest to the unfortunate reality of these types of incidents. Recently, during a midget game in Elmira, one loud-spoken fan called me a "dummy" and banged his fists on the glass every time I skated near. At the end of the game, the Hespeler coach asked the linesman if he was going to perform sexual acts with me — of course, not in those words.
This behaviour is not tolerated anywhere else in society, so why don't the other sensible parents and coaches approach the bullies and let them know their behaviour is inappropriate? These same people who act like sociopaths at rinks across Canada manage to function at work without assaulting their colleagues or spitting on their bosses, yet for some reason cannot manage to keep it together as their cute toddlers chase a puck like a swarm of bees in pursuit of a runaway honeycomb.
Will it take the death of a hockey official in this country before we acknowledge the problem of referee abuse?
The Canadian Hockey Association needs to take some serious and judicious action on this issue, rather than launching an ineffective poster campaign or developing more wonderfully heartfelt codes of conduct that nobody really reads or enforces.
Thankfully, the Ontario Minor Hockey Association is leading the way by introducing the educational Respect in Sport program. It is Canada's leading online bullying, abuse, and harassment prevention program. This program is a positive first step in educating all participants, but a multi-media advertising campaign is needed in order to effectuate a broader change of mentality.
Perhaps educational sessions between parents and referees would also help to build understanding, forge positive relationships, and improve the attrition rate of referees. Above all, minor hockey organizations need to promote teams where the coaches, parents, and players are focused more on skill development, sportsmanship, and fun — rather than winning.
As I ponder why I don't quit refereeing, I realize that the answer is literally in front of my face. Out the front window of my house, I glimpse a group of Mennonite children playing hockey joyfully on the outdoor rink at their parochial school.
As I step out onto my porch to enjoy the scene, I am reminded of all that I truly love about hockey.
Instead of profanities, I hear the tap-slapping of pucks on sticks, and the laughter of boys and girls playing hockey together — purely for the fun of it. This gives me hope that hockey can be idyllically recreated in rinks across our country for the betterment of the game and for the enjoyment of every participant.
Brent Bloch, who lives near Elmira, teaches at Norwell District Secondary School in Palmerston.