The Northern Ontario Hockey Association (NOHA) is in dire need of referees.
The league, whose teams have been fixtures at northern rinks since 1919, has lost nearly 200 on-ice officials in the past few years, which could force the cancellation of the 2022-23 season.
Association president Jason Marchand said that COVID-19 has played a “significant” role in keeping refs off the ice, but years of negative interactions between officials and hockey coaches have also been a factor.
“Obviously, the last couple of seasons, safety concerns were an issue,” Marchand said. “But the abuse from the coaches, that was also an issue.
“It’s probably as scary as a 14-15-year-old, being yelled at by an adult. That obviously can be scary,” Marchand said. “That’s not the reason we want to lose officials, especially those who have obviously put in the time to be proven and get on the ice.”
Surprisingly, one of the barriers for new refs to get involved is startup costs, Marchand said.
“We figure it’s between $400-500 for some of the new officers because of the jerseys and pants, but also the helmets and visors and things like that.”
This season, with an aggressive push for recruiting, the league is offering to subsidize the cost of equipment for aspiring refs. This includes registration fees and equipment for all first-time officials for the 2022/2023 season – whistle, jersey and pants.
The money was made available through the Ontario Sports Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting sports and physical activity in Ontario, and could be valued at $500 per new referee.
“We’re trying to mitigate those concerns as well, the fact that typically brand new officials start at the bottom, so the match fee is a little bit lower,” Marchand said.
A ref officiating lower-level games can earn $25 for a 40-minute game, while refs at higher levels can earn up to $100 a game.
“If they’re just starting out … it’s going to take a long time to recover their money,” he said.
“We’re trying to remove that financial piece and make it easier to earn money, especially for young executives who might otherwise look to part-time work making minimum wage.”
“You know, it’s a great learning opportunity, but a great opportunity to really get better as an officer, as they go along.”
Darren Long, who has been an official at all levels since the nineties, said Hockey Canada, the game’s national governing body, has done a “great job” of educating spectators, especially parents, about polite and proper interactions with referees.
“There needs to be more,” Long said. “People need to respect that a lot because as an officer, it’s very difficult.”
“I’ve had a lot of referees come up to me and say, ‘I can’t handle the pressure. I have to quit.’
“Not only do they have to deal with the pressure of the game — dealing with coaches and players who are out there trying to win, which we respect and understand. But you also have to deal with the fans and the parents.”
“And sometimes they are very difficult to deal with.”
Without a long-term support program — or an auxiliary league — referees facing abuse may decide to hang up their skates.
He said, ‘We try to make every game better and better. “We need that support from everybody. And if we don’t get it from the fans, what’s going to happen is, there’s going to be more and more officials who won’t go down that road to referee a hockey game.”
Long estimates the NOHA canceled 10 percent of its games last year because of a shortage of refs. It’s a scenario Long said he hopes to avoid, and he also hopes fans, coaches and parents remember to respect the people who do the stripes.
He said, ‘This is the whole reason why I took up the responsibility. “Back then, it was kind of a part-time job. But I love the game of hockey. And now the reason I do it is to give back.”
“And if I can leave the game better than when I started refereeing, that’s my goal, you know. We have the best game in the world. And if I can help make it a better game, that’s kind of what I try to do. .”