The Northern Ontario Hockey Association (NOHA) is in dire need of referees.
The league, whose teams have been a fixture on northern rinks since 1919, has lost about 200 on-ice officials in recent years, which could force cancellations in the 2022-23 season.
Jason Marchand, president of the association, said that COVID-19 played a “significant” role in keeping referees off the ice recently, but negative interactions between officials and hockey coaches over the years have also been a factor.
“Obviously, the last two seasons, safety concerns were an issue,” Marchand said. “But the abuse from the coaches was also an issue.”
“It’s probably scary as a 14-15-year-old, being yelled at by an adult. That can definitely be scary,” Marchand said. “It’s not the reason we want to lose officials, especially those who have obviously spent the time to get certified and get on the ice.”
Surprisingly, one of the barriers to getting new judges involved is also the cost of getting started, Marchand said.
“We’ve figured it’s between $400-$500 for some new officials to get involved because of the jersey and the pants, but also the helmet and the mask and things like that.”
This season, with an aggressive recruiting push underway, the league is offering to subsidize equipment costs for aspiring umpires. This includes registration fees and equipment – whistle, shirt and trousers – for all first-time officials for the 2022/2023 season.
The money was made available through the Ontario Sports Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting sport and physical activity in Ontario, and could be valued at $500 per new referral.
“We’re trying to mitigate some of those concerns as well, the fact that new officials usually start at lower levels, so the playing fees are a little bit lower,” Marchand said.
A referee officiating lower-level games can earn $25 for a 40-minute game, while referees at the higher levels can earn up to $100 per game.
“If they’re just starting out…it’s going to take quite a long period of time to get their money back,” he said.
“We’re trying to eliminate that financial part and make it easier for those to earn money, especially younger officials who might otherwise be looking at a part-time job making minimum wage.”
“You know, it’s a good opportunity to learn, but also a good opportunity to really improve as an official as they go along.
Darren Long, who has been an official at all levels since the 1990s, said Hockey Canada, the sport’s national governing body, has done a “great job” of educating spectators, especially parents, about polite and respectful interactions. right with the judges.
“There has to be more,” Long said. “People should respect him much more because as an official it is very difficult.”
“I’ve had a lot of referees come to me and say, ‘I can’t handle the pressure.’ I have to give up.”
“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 it’s very difficult to face them.”
Long said without support programs – or a supportive league – referees facing abuse may decide to hang up their skates.
“We try to get better and better every game. “We need that support from everybody. And if we don’t get that from the fans, what’s going to happen is there’s going to be more and more officials who aren’t going to go that route to referee the game of hockey. “
Long estimates NOHA canceled about 10 percent of its games last year due to a lack of referees. It’s a scenario Long said he hopes to avoid, and he also hopes fans, coaches and parents remember to respect the people who draw the lines.
“That’s the whole reason I started officiating a long time ago,” he said. “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, it’s all about giving 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 a kind of what I try to do.”