Madison Danford (@maddydanford) is a first year PhD student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She is working with Dr. Courtney Szto in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies in the socio-cultural stream. Madison is interested in hockey, gender, intersectionality, nationalism and identity. Her Master’s thesis examined the experiences of women ice hockey officials in Canada.
Officials in organized team sports are supposed to keep the game in control, help avoid injuries, and ensure that the game is played in a safe and fair manner. The role of an official, in hockey specifically, can be very challenging due to the complexity and speed of the game. Throughout high school, I officiated hockey games in my home town. I remember being 15 years old and having a coach berate me for a goal that I called off during a House League hockey game. After several failed attempts at asking the coach to leave the bench, I left the ice. I went into the concourse of the arena and asked the commissioner of the league to remove the coach from the bench. The coach eventually left and the game resumed. He was allowed back the following week and I remember the nervousness and fear I had when I took the ice for that game. Youth hockey in Canada has created a hostile working environment for officials. Let’s face it, no one really likes the officials because if they are doing their job well, they go unnoticed. Officials are rarely seen as the ‘good guys’ on the ice.
In January 2020, during a 2-week long Pee Wee (ages 11-12) hockey tournament in Anjou, Quebec, Hockey Montreal implemented a new dress code in an attempt to combat abuse towards hockey officials (referees and lines-people) under the age of 18. A green band was strapped to arms of younger officials as an indicator to coaches and spectators that the officials are young and still learning the rules of the game. Hockey Montreal’s head referee, Emmanual-Yvan Ofoe explained to CTV that “we want to make sure the parents realize who’s on the ice … [We want] coaches to realize that the person that they’re talking to is in charge of the rules on the ice. He’s a kid, a teenager.”
The organization’s attempt to divert verbal abuse away from younger officials is not a solution for the abusive behaviour that has become acceptable and tolerated at hockey rinks across Canada. Marking younger officials by highlighting their age and indicating their lack of experience may result in more verbal abuse. But more importantly, the green armband acts as a band aid solution, rather than holding the coaches and spectators accountable for their abusive behaviours. Changing the appearance of the officials does not change the culture of the rink. Furthermore, what is being done for all of the officials who are over the age of 18? It seems like we are saying that the violence and verbal abuse directed at on-ice officials is simply an issue of age and not behaviour.
In a 2012 web-based study conducted with ice hockey officials from various levels of hockey across Canada, it was observed that more than 90% of officials have been the targets of aggression and anger associated with their work. The officials also agreed that coaches were the individuals most responsible for that aggression, anger, and abuse. The officials suggested that to increase safety on the ice, more education and rigorous enforcement of discipline from hockey associations in support of the officials’ decisions is needed, along with compliance from coaches and spectators to abide to by the rules that are enforced. Those involved in hockey need to be held accountable for the actions that occur at the rink, especially in relation to the treatment of officials. Current research on officials indicates that the abuse and mistreatment they face in their careers are a key indicator of high dropout rates (see Ackery, Tator & Snider, 2012; Danford, 2019; Forbes & Livingston, 2013; Livingston & Forbes, 2007).
In the past decade, there has been an increase in the number of codes of conduct, agreements and other initiatives in an attempt to ensure that respect and safety are granted to all those involved in sport. Hockey Canada created an eight-point initiative titled, Shared Respect:
Players, Coaches, Officials and Parents. The aim is to “educate and encourage greater respect between all participants in the game:”
- The safety of the participants in the game is more important than the final score.
- I value the contribution of the coach in developing the players’ talents, even though I may not always agree with their methods.
- I understand that officials do not make the hockey rules, they only apply them.
- I understand that children learn from adults, and my behavior reflects what I want children to learn.
- I understand that officials are responsible to ensure that the game is played in a safe and fair manner for all participants.
- I understand that players, coaches and officials are learning the game, and mistakes will be made in the learning process.
- I may not cheer for the opposition team, but I will also not cheer against them or verbally abuse them.
- I understand that the biggest reason for players and officials quitting the game is abuse
Despite this and other initiatives, many officials are still not respected. The majority of codes of conduct in sport include statements about the treatment of officials, but do not outline any consequences for the participants who do not abide by codes. The fact that the Shared Respect initiative concludes with, “…the biggest reason for players and officials quitting the game is abuse,” indicates that the research finding is widely known. There is an evident need for an enforceable policy to protect officials. Since Hockey Canada has highlighted the connection between abuse and dropping out, the question remains: Why has Hockey Canada not taken the steps to ensure compliance? Why are there currently no policies in place to support the rights and safety of officials? Is a green armband really going to protect an official from verbal abuse or will it act as a target, highlighting potential inexperience, drawing more attention to the younger official on the ice?