It’s not all black and white: Canada-wide lack of referees hits Hockey N.L.

A hockey referee surveys the game. Newfoundland and Labrador is down about 22 per cent of its officials. (Radio-Canada)

While organized hockey is back in full swing in Newfoundland and Labrador, there’s a shortage of officials to make the calls in rural communities, says the province’s governing body for the sport.

During the pandemic, the number of hockey referees has dropped across the country, with some provinces losing as much as 40 per cent of their officials, according to Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador.

In Newfoundland and Labrador the number dropped about 22 per cent, said Ed Flood, Hockey N.L.’s referee-in-chief.

“We lost about 200 of our 885 [referees],” Flood told CBC Radio’s Newfoundland Morning

“We’re very consistent for this year as well — we’ve kind of hung on to the same numbers.”

Leading up to the pandemic, Flood said, the number of officials in the province was actually growing.

But with the cancellations of organized sports at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, those numbers began to dwindle. Flood said a lot of experienced officials took the season off when sports finally did reopen again, citing the ups and downs of the pandemic, and how games were being played under public health orders.

“They may have found other things to do. Especially people who have been around some time, they have decided, ‘Well, I’m not going to come back.’ That has hurt us some,” Flood said. 

“We haven’t had any cancellations, but we’re having a really tough go in some areas, particularly small areas, to fill refereeing slots.”

Leading up to the pandemic, Ed Flood said the number of officials in Newfoundland and Labrador was actually growing. (CBC News)

Flood said more games could be cancelled if leagues continue to lose officials — something that has already been happened in other provinces.

But, Flood said, some senior officials in the province have begun to return to the ice to fill the gap.

Trending concern

The Mount Pearl Minor Hockey Association (MPMHA) has also witnessed its share of losses — about 13 per cent — but COVID-19 isn’t the only concern. 

Paul Breen, referee in chief for MPMHA, told CBC News other factors are leading to officials continuing to leave the sport. Breen has been officiating in Mount Pearl and St. John’s for 15 years. 

“There’s a downturn in the economy [that] has sort of affected some of our officials that are coming out of university or college. They’re unable to secure employment so they’re having to go away,” Breen said. 

“Then there’s always an element based around maltreatment of officials.”

Breen said new officials generally sign up for the gig around 14 years old, and for the first couple of years they learn the rules and keep an eye on the lines as linesmen. It’s when they put on the bands — red indicators on their arms marking them as referees who call goals and penalties — when things can go sour. 

Paul Breen has been a hockey official in Newfoundland and Labrador for 15 years. (Submitted by Paul Breen)

Mistreatment of volunteer officials across several youth sports has been a problem for years, and it’s something hockey organizations across the country are trying to clamp down on.

“We start them at the lower level and we always give them the support of an older or more experienced official for help,” Breen said. 

“As they proceed through the ranks things get more difficult as you get into higher levels of hockey and more competitive levels of hockey. Maltreatment is a problem, from parents in the stands, from coaching staff. Sometimes things aren’t nice and we get guys and girls who don’t come back.”

Flood said if the national trend of losing officials continues, there will be problems with filling officiating spots across the province. He said he hopes it never comes to that.

“Fortunately the situation we’re in right now is pretty good compared to the rest of the country, but it’s still causing a bit of concern in certain areas of the province,” said Flood.

For those interested in putting on the stripes, Hockey N.L. officials do get paid.

According to Hockey N.L.’s website, referees who worked regular season senior hockey games in the 2020-21 season made $85 per game and linesmen made $50. At the lowest tier, the U11 level, referees made $20 a game while linesmen made $12.50. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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