Referee Abuse Demands Meaningful Action, Not Cosmetic Changes

The green armband initiative is a misunderstanding of the problem referees face

Hockey official wearing a green armband over their uniform jersey. Photo from CTV Montreal.

It’s the third day of the 2015 PeeWee (U13) Female Provincial Championship and it hasn’t been a smooth tournament, so far. There have been many lopsided games and that has caused frustration from players, coaches, and parents alike. Unfortunately, much of this frustration has been directed at the officials. The third day kicks off and we have an exciting match-up: first versus second. If the second-place team wins, both teams are guaranteed a rematch in the final; if the second-place team loses, they face a winner-take-all match against the third-placed team tomorrow.

Everyone knows the stakes and the referee is clearly nervous. It’s a small arena and the spectators are right on top of the ice surface – every comment is amplified. As the first-place team begins to dominate the game, a deep, booming voice can clearly be heard above all others, protesting any and every decision that goes against the losing team. The protests move from the relatively benign “come on!” to the more aggressive “ref, wake up!” and “call something!”. Every decision receives the same treatment from this person – offsides, icings, penalties called, penalties not called.

As I watch the game, in my capacity as the officiating supervisor, I know the referee can hear this. I scan the crowd, looking for the source of the voice – it doesn’t take long. The voice belongs to a uniformed, on-duty police officer; six-foot-two, easily 230 pounds, sporting a shaved head and a goatee. He’s not alone either; his partner is with him. I weigh my options.  Eventually, I make my way around the arena to stand a few metres away. The next time he yells, I sidle up next to him and speak very quietly, in the hopes that none of the other parents will hear: “listen, I get this is a frustrating to watch and I don’t agree with all of the calls that have been made. But if you stop and think for a moment, I’m confident you will realize that you are way out of line here. You are on duty, representing your department, and you are berating a seventeen year old girl who is trying her best to referee a hockey game. Let’s not make this a bigger deal than it has to be… recognize where you are and watch your daughter play.”

Even as a 21 year old adult, the experience of confronting a uniformed police officer over his abuse of a teenaged girl remains one of my most jarring experience of referee abuse. I walked away, dripping with sweat, and, after a few minutes, he and his partner left the building. He was back for the final game, which his daughter’s team also lost, off-duty, dressed in a track suit. He sat quietly and clapped for his daughter’s team in their silver-medal performance. Although this individual modified his behaviour, it took an adult-to-adult intervention that is far too uncommon in Canadian hockey.

Referee abuse is rampant in Canada

Anyone who has refereed youth sport has multiple stories of being verbally abused by coaches or parents. After a while, the individual incidents begin to blur together and only the shocking ones remain truly memorable. The consequences of referee abuse are easily measured. In British Columbia, 38% of referees quit after their first year and 80% quit within five years. Hockey Eastern Ontario recently reported that one in three referees quit after the first year and half and a further 50% quit after their second year. While officials quit for a variety of reasons, the majority cite aggression and abuse as one of the factors. (Ackery, Tator, & Snider, 2012) (Forbes & Livingston, 2013)

Unlike many issues in hockey, referee abuse is not a source of contention, at least not on the surface: every team, association, and governing body agrees that it’s a serious issue. Hockey Canada has promotional materials drawing attention to referee abuse that are over two decades old. Yet, despite this universal consensus and the chronic nature of the problem, the hockey community has consistently failed to address the problem.  

Last year, Hockey Montreal announced a pilot in which referees under the age of 18 would wear green armbands (instead of the traditional orange or red). Hockey Montreal’s goal was to “make sure the parents realize who’s on the ice, [because] he’s a kid, a teenager.” Although Hockey Montreal’s pilot made the news at the time of its announcement, there was no further communication or coverage regarding the success or failure of the initiative. Nevertheless, Hockey Eastern Ontario (HEO) recently announced that they would also be adopting the green armband.

This issue with the green armband initiative is that, as Madison Danford wrote at the time of Hockey Montreal’s 2020 announcement, it is more likely to be a target than a solution. Moreover, it is highly improbable that simple awareness is the issue. Coaches and parents must realize that their officials are teenagers because, in reality, the majority of officials are adolescents – in 2019, a whopping 67.4% of officials in British Columbia were under the age of 18. Hockey Eastern Ontario reports that 40% of their officials are under the age of 18. If you are the parent or coach of a team in a U15 division or below, you will see primarily, if not exclusively, referees under the age of 18. Despite this reality, the abuse continues unabated.

Conventional approaches to discipline are failing referees

The conventional structure of a hockey game, in which participants are penalized for breaking the rules and penalties increase depending on the severity of the violation, is not suitable to address verbal abuse of officials. A new approach is necessary and needed urgently.

The issue is that penalizing coaches for verbal abuse still requires the official to assess a penalty. If a teenaged official is being berated, belittled, or intimidated by an adult, they are far less likely to assess that penalty. An even larger issue is that the source of the worst verbal abuse is often parents in the stands, who are not subject to penalties. Theoretically, the official could refuse to continue the game until the parent leaves the building. However, if an official is too intimidated to assess a penalty to a coach, they are even less likely to bring the entire game to a halt.

Officiating a minor hockey game is the only situation in our society in which a teenager is repeatedly entrusted with this level of authority over an adult. It’s a new experience for both officials and coaches alike and some friction is to be expected. However, as the adults in the situation, coaches and parents should be exercising restraint; they are not. It is grossly unrealistic to expect an officiating crew, consisting of two to three teenagers, to effectively manage not only a safe and fair hockey game but also the torrent of abuse that is directed at them.

There is also no reason to believe that continued reliance on passive education modules, such as Respect in Sport, or codes of conduct are going to solve the problem. (Danford, 2019) There is no evidence that these programs impact behaviour. At the provincial championship discussed at the beginning of the piece, every parent, player, and coach signed a code of conduct prior to the first game. However, that did not prevent multiple, daily instances of verbal abuse directed at the teenaged referees. Despite this reality, the idea of the green armband has taken hold.

While hockey “listens and learns”, referees are suffering

The public statements by Hockey Montreal and Hockey Eastern Ontario are rife with words used by governing bodies in place of substantive change. The statements utilize language of learning and growth while ignoring the historical record, which calls into question whether or not such growth is even possible. This speaks to the phenomenon known as the “politics of evidence”, which Dr. Courtney Szto discusses in her book, Changing on the Fly. The idea is that no matter how much evidence is produced, in both anecdotal and statistical form, there will always be a demand for more prior to any substantive change. This is a mechanism through which organizations appear reasonable in order to shield themselves from criticism without actually changing their practices.

This type of coded language is reflected in statements regarding the green armband initiative. In Hockey Montreal’s interviews, their Head Referee stated that the purpose of the green armband was to make parents and coaches realize that the officials are teenagers. This statement ignores the fact that teenagers are the largest demographic of officials and therefore, there is no reason to think the issue is lack of awareness. Yet Hockey Eastern Ontario referee-in-chief John Reid echoed these sentiments, saying that the initiative was targeting adults who “should know better”. If they should already know better, a green armband is unlikely to change that.

Ultimately, these statements are based on the incorrect idea that abuse is “not [part of] a culture of hockey”. The reality is that abuse is baked into hockey’s “aggressive and violent atmosphere”. (Jeffrey-Tonosi, Fraser-Thomas, & Baker, 2015) In professional hockey contexts, viewers shout at the television, spectators boo opposing players and hurl insults at referees then go on social media and lambaste their own players for poor performances. It is naïve to assume that those attitudes and cultural norms would disappear just because the age of the players has changed. Ultimately, while hockey “listens and learns” and continues to enact cosmetic measures rather than meaningful change, officials are quitting and leaving the rink with negative memories that will last a lifetime.

It is difficult to understand why amateur governing bodies continue to roll out cosmetic measures, rather than tangible changes. Amateur sport organizations have the ability to dramatically impact the culture of the sport. If the organization’s members agree there is a problem, it should not be an issue to action meaningful change.  A perfect example of this is how BC Hockey drastically reduced fighting with the stroke of a pen.

BC Hockey drastically reduced fighting

In the early 2010s, BC Hockey decided that fighting needed to be eliminated from minor hockey. Fighting was already against the rules, punishable with a five-minute major penalty and game misconduct, plus a possible suspension. However, the prevailing opinion was that there was still far too much fighting in minor hockey and something needed to be done. Ahead of the 2012-13 season, BC Hockey introduced new, accumulating sanctions for players: a player would be suspended one game for their first fight, two games for their second, and indefinitely for their third fight of the season.  Perhaps the biggest change to the suspension guidelines that year was the expansion of suspensions to coaches whose players were penalized. Coaches were now subject to lengthy suspensions if their players fought repeatedly, engaged in fights at the end of games, left the bench to fight, or committed a host of other infractions. As the 2012-13 season got underway, the results were immediate.

Figure 1. Fighting Penalties in Pacific Coast Amateur Hockey Association U18 and U21 Divisions1

Fighting penalties dropped 36.7% in U18 and U21 divisions in 2012-13. The messaging around these changes was widespread: players and parents were warned that fighting suspensions were automatic and not subject to appeal; coaches were warned that they would be held responsible for their players’ actions; officials were strongly encouraged to deal with unnecessary rough play or “trash-talking” early in the game, so that it didn’t escalate to fighting. All concerned parties were given a responsibility in the solution, with the threat of serious punishment if they did not take their responsibility seriously – the change was immediate.

The abrupt reduction in fighting shows that amateur governing bodies do have the ability to affect meaningful change, even when it comes to an issue like fighting, which is deeply ingrained in hockey culture. Although this exact approach will not and does not work to address referee abuse, it provides proof that proactive, disciplinary approaches can be effective. 

The time to fix referee abuse is now

As previously discussed, the nature of referee abuse necessitates a different response than other discipline issues in hockey. Continuing to rely on adolescent officials to punish their adult bullies is both grossly irresponsible and utterly ineffective. The time for listening and learning is over; it is time to fix referee abuse once and for all.

The answer is a combination of third-party oversight and aggressive sanctions for coaches who violate Hockey Canada Rule 9.2 and for parents who violate Hockey Canada’s “Shared Respect” guidelines. Provincial Sport Organizations should be mandated to recruit Conduct Observers who will visit games and report coach or spectator misconduct. All reports will be punished with immediate and escalating suspensions.

Presently, if a coach is assessed a Minor penalty for “Unsportsmanlike Conduct”, they receive no further sanction. If a coach is assessed a Game Misconduct penalty for “Harassment of Officials” they are only suspended for two games. Those penalties are insufficient and should be increased greatly: a two game suspension for every minor penalty a coach receives and four games for a game misconduct, with compounding punishments for each infraction. There must be a line, at which point, teams and associations are compelled to remove coaches who repeatedly violate these rules. Moreover, the Conduct Observers must be empowered to determine these penalties should have been assessed by the on-ice officials and retroactively assess the penalties (triggering the resulting suspensions) after the game has concluded.

Parents are currently subject to no sanctions for their behaviour and this must change immediately. If a parent is found to have verbally abused a referee by the Conduct Observer, the sanction should transfer to their child. If multiple parents on the same team are reported by the Conduct Observer, their team should forfeit the game. If the infractions continue, the team should be suspended and forfeit all games during that time.

If readers feel these sanctions are unfair, consider this: nobody disputes that referee abuse is unacceptable and a widespread problem and yet, over two decades, there is no evidence of progress.

As we saw with BC Hockey’s reduction in fighting, collective responsibility is the key to cultural change. If individuals won’t take on that responsibility themselves, then external consequences are required. When individuals continue to suggest more half-measures to address this problem, they are making an implicit admission that referee abuse has become normalized in their own minds. Kids as young as eleven years old are leaving the rink in tears because of the persistent bullying, harassment and abuse they face. They are developing anxiety about stepping on the ice and making a mistake because the potential consequences are so terrifying. Parents and coaches have been given ample opportunity to prove they can police their own conduct and the result has been decades of utter failure and rampant referee abuse. It’s time to try something new.

When BC Hockey instituted the expanded fighting rules in 2012-13, there was a great deal of resistance. Players and coaches warned about players being “forced” to fight and then punished for defending themselves; parents worried that kids would be less likely to play if they were punished too severely for breaking the rules; minor hockey associations claimed that coaches would quit if they were punished for their players’ actions; everyone considered the possibility that referees would incorrectly apply the rules, leading to unjust, heavy sanctions for players. Despite the plethora of “what ifs”, there is no evidence that any of these concerns came to fruition and the immediate, empirical reduction in fighting is unmistakable.

When education, codes of conduct, and lesser penalties fail, we must be willing to take substantive action. The punishment must reflect the reality that the culture of abuse in hockey is out of control and our teenaged officials are paying the price. Anything less constitutes acceptance that in exchange for their game fee, teenaged referees must be willing to face abuse and harassment. Parents and coaches have shown that they are far more likely to be bystanders than protectors. Therefore, is time for administrators and governing bodies to show courage and take decisive action to protect young officials. A green armband is not enough.


1. Statistics publicly available through Teamlink.ca.

One thought on “Referee Abuse Demands Meaningful Action, Not Cosmetic Changes

  1. Pingback: Monday Links, News and Notes: Battle of the Tkachuks, Brassard’s Hat Trick, and More!

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