LONDON, UK – There are some jobs in this life that are thankless. Take the guys on the beaches of the Ivory Coast dismantling toxic ships by hand or unlucky souls in Cuba who sit for hours in soaring temperatures delicately making cigars by hand.
Yes both jobs are rewarded with cash, and indeed you may get the odd complimentary anchor or smoke as a perk, but let’s face it, they are tough jobs with little scope for pleasure.
This brings me nicely on to the subject of ice hockey referees. I mean why? Why put yourself through the abuse from fans and players, the relatively poor cash reward, not to mention the danger of skating round a rink with a quarter of the protective padding on whilst ten players charge around firing a hard black puck backwards and forwards.
I am one of the few people playing in the ENL who can answer the beleaguered referee’s argument of ‘If you think you can do better, why don’t you try?’
I donned the stripes, five years ago to try and earn a bit of cash and get some extra skating practice in. I thought it would be easy and so it was…. at first.
Skating blissfully in a one man system I simply turned up and counted the cash as I took charge of numerous late night recreational hockey games across London. I was usually the biggest and strongest skater on the ice, took very little grief from the players (most of whom knew me) and had no fans to contend with.
Best of all I kept the full £40 fee to myself as there was no one else to share it with. A few months of this and I began to think that I had missed my calling in hockey, as it was obvious that I was simply brilliant and it would only take a brush up on the IIHF rulebook before the calls to the Elite League would come.
My mobile phone did ring one Friday and it was Mo Ashraff, the Chief Referee of the English Ice Hockey Association. He had a cancellation that weekend and needed me to fill in. Obviously he had heard what a positive impact the hockey player turned part-time referee Dave Carr had made on London’s recreational ice hockey scene.
Maybe it had been positive feedback from the clubs or perhaps Mo himself had been hiding in the back of the bar at Lee Valley secretly assessing my whistle blowing style during a game? Dreams of a complimentary flight to Belfast to take a charge of a Giants game were crushed within seconds of the pleasantries ending.
The M6 is probably the worst motorway in the UK. Seemingly gridlocked at all times of the day, it is one of those routes I have always dreaded. I smiled smugly to myself at my anticipation of such traffic problems and arrived in Coventry within plenty of time before the game. The smile was to be wiped off my face sooner rather than later and it happened before I even set foot onto the ice.
Stood outside the locker room in my stripes and with whistle in hand waiting for the teams to come off the ice, a child of no more than ten screwed his face up as he peered down at my skates:
“Nobody wears their skates like that” he sneered disapprovingly in reference at the way my tongues were positioned apparently. I shot him a glare of disgust that sadly did not register with him as he trundled off for a pre game prep talk.
You may have guessed already, that my appearance in Coventry was sadly not to officiate a Coventry Blaze game, well actually that’s not quite true as the Blaze were playing, but rather than the senior side it was the under twelve side in action. The kid who had already insulted me was not the mascot but actually one of the players.
So there I was, with my two teenage linesmen ready to take control of a West Midlands derby match between the home side and a visiting Solihull team. Surprisingly there was a decent crowd in the Skydome as the hockey parents and families gathered to watch their little darlings in action.
If I was slightly miffed at the slating of my fashion sense before the game, it only took around five minutes for that incident to fade into insignificance. One kid in particular seemed intent on creating carnage at every opportunity with a series of ridiculous slashes, hooks and trips.
Then after making a fairly obvious call on him for tripping, the 3ft prospective Ogie Oglethorpe starts swearing at me.
Not just average swearing either, the simple ‘F’ word was standard for this 11 year old and when he rolled out the dreaded ‘C’ word, I had to tell him to shut up or I would give him a misconduct.
So with another minor penalty served, the kid returned to the ice just at the right time to make another x rated challenge on one of the opposition players. I blew my whistle just seconds before another volley of abuse including every swear word imaginable plus a few gestures that left nothing to the imagination.
Part of the crowd seemed to agree with him and a quick glance up at the stands revealed a handful of snarling faces and moving hands from the obligatory angry mams and dads. To be honest, at this point I had done nothing wrong but was in a state of shock at the vitriol directed at me.
Seeking respite from the mob, and perhaps looking for some support from the team coaches, I appealed to the offending player’s bench for calm. I repeated what “Ogie” had said and basically said that I had given the kid more than enough warnings, and that although it’s the last thing I would want to do, next time I would kick him out.
The reply of “well if you weren’t making so many bad calls he wouldn’t be swearing”, was not, I have to concede, the kind of response I was looking for. I don’t mind admitting that at that point I gave up and simply wanted to get back on the M6 and back to the sanctuary of the capital.
By the start of the last period I had a mixture of emotions, mainly anger to be honest, at the coach and the parents, but they got their moment of joy courtesy of my lack of focus. Both teams lined up for the first face off but I hadn’t noticed that one of the goalies had disappeared off the ice for a drink of water.
I foolishly dropped the puck before realising my mistake, and then looked around to see the ironic hand clapping from my new friends in the stands plus the inevitable head shaking from both benches.
I saw out the rest of the game without incident but I didn’t referee any junior games again after that experience. In any case, I never did feel comfortable in black and white stripes, being a Sunderland fan.
Karma is a funny thing, and once my anger had subsided and my head cleared, I reflected on the game and realised that I was once one of those kids. No, I didn’t use the same expletives, but I had no more respect for referees when I was eleven than any of those kids in Coventry had for me (even as a league hockey player).
You see most referees in the UK get an unfair reputation as comic figures. A position apparently only to be filled by bullied kids turned power hungry adults or wannabe school teachers. Some may well be but most are not. The disrespect and abuse towards referees (and to a lesser extent, linesmen) starts with the parents and then continues throughout a players career.
As a kid in the North East (here he goes again I hear you say), we always had the same referees for games.
One of the more regular ones was an old guy called Alex Gibson, who had that classic style of skating, referees of junior hockey used to have, gliding with his arms behind his back and hands clasped together whilst play took place.
Just like the dentists who use cartoon stickers to break down fear and barriers with young children, Mr Gibson had two cartoon eyes stuck to the back of his helmet. Whether he wanted to raise a laugh or not, the only reaction Gibson frequently got was grief.
Even my Dad used to proudly proclaim: “I will give Gibson one thing in his favour, he is certainly consistent” he would laugh, before adding: “consistently crap” after a dramatic pause.
When parents give children license to take the mick out of another adult, most kids will take that green card and double it.
And so it transpires that in the English National League (and most probably across the junior leagues) we have a number of officials who are disrespected and derided by players, fans and coaches alike on a weekly basis.
The referees have a tough skin and I have no doubt that some thrive on the criticism. Some seem to have a grudge against certain players or teams depending on what history there has been, but the vast majority try their best to keep things fair.
There are shortages of officials now across the league, with two man systems worryingly common last season.
There are more teams and more games this year, so unless the EIHA have unearthed a batch of experienced officials the situation can only get worse. Add quicker and more physical players to the league and we could be faced with a ticking time bomb, ready to erupt with mass uncontrolled brawls and player safety at risk.
The solution is a difficult one as this issue affects sports much more popular than hockey. The English Football Associations Respect campaign started well but then faded badly when the top footballers soon forgot its values when the games started and the pressure arrived.
I know that Ashraff and the EIHA have made some great efforts to improve officiating. They have tried to put on more professional training camps using top facilities such as Lilleshall and stepped up recruitment drives via the clubs junior development schemes.
They only have so much money and resources though, and this will always be a major stumbling block. Not all prospective referees can afford to invest in training camps and equipment so already we have exclusions.
That’s not to say that the current batch of referees are simply victims of the system and bullying from all sides. Some do themselves no favours with their attitudes and in some cases incompetence during games and there are really no excuses in those cases in my opinion.
For the majority that act fairly and consistently with their whistle they deserve more respect than they are given and it would be nice if all of us could make a concerted effort to work with the referee and linesmen rather than against them come game day.
By doing so, the games will be better, the fans will see more of the hockey and less of the intimidation, cheating and recriminations, and we can all get home in time for Match of the Day 2 on the TV.
I know that after my embarrassing episode with ‘Ogie’ and the angry parents, it can be a very difficult and frustrating job, and whilst I may not always show it, I appreciate how hard, and at times thankless, it is.
So now that’s done…. Where is my second assist on that goal referee?
Contact the author email@example.com