Kukla's Korner

Tasca's Take

Only the Lonely

Teenage boys have big hopes and dreams.  Some want to grow up to be firefighters, others want to be musicians, and many fancy careers as educators.  The draw of these professions is obvious, as they usually provide a beautiful combination of prestige and financial stability.

For similar reasons, youngsters also fantasize about playing organized sports.  When it comes right down to it, there may be no more enjoyable a lifestyle than that of a professional athlete, who, even when performing poorly, is still often contractually guaranteed an exorbitant amount of money with no threat of termination.  It’s a incredible luxury most members of the working class will never know.

While it’s easy to see why a young Canadian boy would want to pursue the lofty goal of becoming a pro hockey player, it’s virtually incomprehensible to understand why anyone would be even remotely interested in being a hockey referee.  The rigors of the job are self-explanatory, and the constant berating officials are subjected to on a nightly basis from players and fans alike would seemingly appeal only to a masochist.

It’s one thing for NHL referees to take a beating.  They’re grown men who’ve developed thick skin during their many years of officiating.  But as sportswriter Paul Friesen reports, even pre-teenage referees feel the wrath of players, coaches, and especially parents. 

In a report this week, Friesen tells the story of a 12-year-old Seattle boy who was peppered with a barrage of cuss words from infuriated parents while officiating a youth league contest between a pair of eight-year-old hockey teams.  The boy, trying to follow in the footsteps of his father and NHL official Vaughan Rody, was working his first game.

Not surprisingly, Rody was shocked at the treatment his son received that night.  He says it’s part of a disturbing trend in minor hockey:

“It’s an epidemic.  We’re losing kids every day.  They’re fearful.  Who wouldn’t be?  We don’t allow bullying in our school buses.  We don’t allow bullying anywhere.  But we allow it at the rink.”

“These kids have to be protected. They’re just kids. They’re doing the best job they can.  Just because you’re wrong doesn’t give anybody the right to threaten you, push you, slash you or denounce you.”

Rody cited an incident last weekend in which a 15-year-old took a two-handed slash at a linesman after being thrown out of a youth game in Brandon, Manitoba.  The official in that particular case was 37-years-old, but he’s understandably thinking about calling it quits, as subjecting himself to such abuse over time has proven to be mentally and emotionally exhausting.

Frightening as it may sound, Hockey Canada loses around ten thousand officials every year.  Many of them are teenagers.  It’s left many people in hockey circles wondering where quality referees are going to come from in the future if the current dropout rates continue. 

Three years ago, NHL officiating manager Danny McCourt arranged a meeting with a 14-year-old Winnipeg referee who was ripped to shreds by four adult coaches after making a controversial call late in a youth game.  McCourt explains why he was compelled to speak with the boy:

“To find out that the referee was only 14 years old and to have four grown adults (behave that way), it upset me enough. My whole idea was to let the young fellow know that ‘we know what you are going through and you’re not alone’

“This kind of abuse can not continue because we’re losing young officials.  I just hope he stays involved in officiating.”

Although it was a wonderful gesture, there’s no way McCourt or anyone else can possibly offer enough consolation to the hordes of minor hockey referees across the continent who are blistered on a regular basis.  The only way things are going to change is if players, coaches, and parents come to grips with reality and accept the fact that hockey is nothing more than a game, quite meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

Personally, I have the utmost respect for hockey officials, and it’s the direct result of a nasty first-hand experience. When I was 14, a youth league organizer offered me five dollars to officiate a basketball game between two junior high school teams. I figured it’d be a walk in the park, thankful for the opportunity to snag an Abe Lincoln that would provide me with the latest edition of The Hockey News.

By the time the night was over, I was shaking in my pants.  The curses directed my way from the stands were shocking, even to a foul-mouthed teenager. The coaches were just as bad, not hesitating to walk onto the floor and get in my face following every questionable call. Once the final buzzer sounded, I took the money and ran, knowing full well that I’d called my first and last basketball game.  It was at that point I vowed never to insult a sporting official ever again.

The more I hear fans, players, coaches, and the like complaining about the quality of officiating in the NHL, the more I wish those folks could spend one day experiencing the personal doubt and embarrassment I felt after my lone game as a ref.  For sure, the bar is higher for professional officials, but at the same time, as human beings, they’re prone to making mistakes.

Kerry Fraser knows all about mistakes.  Best known for his bouffant hairstyle, the long-time NHL referee is still vilified by Maple Leaf fans for what is easily the most famous missed call in the last 20 years.  To this day, Fraser says he still agonizes over not seeing Wayne Gretzky’s high-stick on Doug Gilmour in Game 6 of the 1993 Campbell Conference final between Los Angeles and Toronto.

Moments after the high-stick, Gretzky scored in overtime to seal the deal, and the rest is history.  Fraser received a slew of death threats in the months immediately afterward, and continued to take grief every time he worked a game in Toronto for the next 17 years.  Even Doug Gilmour, on the night Fraser called his final game at the Air Canada Centre in 2010, pleaded with bitter Leaf fans, saying “Please let it go.  It’s over.  The man’s retiring. For the sake of his sanity, let it go.”

It’s almost impossible to fathom what would possess someone to aspire to be an ice hockey official.  It can’t be for the money, and it’s most certainly not borne from a desire to be popular.  In fact, in many ways, it’s the loneliest profession.  Officiating consists of long hours, constant travel, and intense scrutiny from players, coaches, and the media. 

As Kerry Fraser and others can attest, that scrutiny can sometimes bring out the worst in people.  It’s unfortunate because referees at all levels deserve the utmost respect of the hockey community.  Without amicable, physically fit officials that have an unrelenting passion for upholding the integrity of the game, there would, in essence, be no game.

That would sure make for some long winters.

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Comments

gowings's avatar

Nice article!

Posted by gowings from MTL on 06/03/12 at 12:51 PM ET

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About Tasca's Take

Tasca's Take is written by Joe Tasca. Born and raised in Westerly, Rhode Island, Joe works as a broadcaster for seven radio stations in southern New England. Whether that's a testament to his on-air ability or because he has a desparate need for money is debatable.

Joe spends his summers playing golf, enjoying the beauty of Misquamicut Beach, and wining and dining girls who are easily awed by the mere presence of a radio personality. During the winter months, he can usually be found taking in a hockey game somewhere in North America. In the spring, he spends much of his time in botanical gardens tiptoeing through the tulips, while autumn is a time to frolic with his golden retrievers through piles of his neighbors’ leaves.