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Every time I look at the recruitment numbers and turnover rates of hockey officials, I get concerned. We need more and better officials. Beyond that, we need to start teaching and giving young officials opportunities for experience and growth.
Additionally, we need to provide better support for these young men and women. Why do we have trouble keeping many of the kids who give a try at donning the stripes? Part of it is that leagues look the other way and make them feel all alone. Too often, they are left to fend for themselves when they are at the rink and everyone in the nearly empty building can hear some "senior coach" dropping f-bombs on a teenage official and delusional hockey parents screaming at them if they deign to call a penalty or offside that could permanently derail their special snowflake's path to the NHL.
I felt a surge of pride when I saw my son McCauley -- who both plays and officiates the game -- stand up to a much older coach who attempted to intimidate and verbally abuse him. The kid has what it takes and is going to be just fine.
Others need more systematic support... that is, if we can even get them in the system in the first place. Too often, these USA Hockey officiating clinics are offered to infrequently and the game assignments just aren't there.
Bottom line is this: We need more numbers to create competition for the fat, old boy network guys. The status quo seems to keep guys hanging around and not letting in the new blood that will infuse life and spirit onto our game. The older guys should mentor the younger ones and the younger ones push the older ones not to get complacent. That's the way it should be.
Last Friday, I watched four referees work the ECAC D1 Liberty Tournament games at the Rock in Newark. There were a couple 25-year-olds, a 24-year-old and a 26-year-old. It was good to see new people running the show: Yale vs. Princeton, Merrimac vs. UConn. These are not "soft" games.
Yes, there was mistakes and missed calls. Guess what, folks. It's part of the process of development, just as it is when developing players from prospects into pros. That's what coaching is all about: teaching them to be better and setting the bar high. To me, it's exciting to see the future in front of us.
Hey, USA Hockey: I've got a challenge for you. I am afraid that the numbers for new officials are way down. We need to get 12- and 13-year-old players to see that learning to officiate can also be an enjoyable way to spend time at the rink. We need some 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds to understand they can skate and make some pocket money.
As promising as some our young officials are, we need a bigger pool. I am afraid for the future and that's because of the lack of initiative at the present leadership level and the unwillingness to actively recruit.
We need to think out of the box for the good of the game. I know from what I speak. Just recently, I helped a young women's player to realize that she could have a future in officiating -- perhaps even a chance at the Olympics and other major international work. The officiating symposium I just conducted in Finland was a huge success, despite the attempts of a now-fired bureaucrat to stand in the way.
As the senior officials of U.S. birth with thousands of combined games worth experience, USA Hockey should be looking to Dennis LaRue, Brian Murphy, Kevin Collins and/or myself to go out and help find new people to take up the whistle and the cause. This is NOT about ego and self-aggrandizement. It's all about leading and teaching for the good of the game.
It won't happen, dear readers. Instead, you will keep seeing the same, fat old guys working your kids game today and tomorrow and every weekend. Sadly, someday one of our kids may get hurt because of substandard officiating and the malaise upstairs.
Be afraid, be very afraid. I am.
Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.
Today, Stewart is an officiating and league discipline consultant for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC).
The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials. Stewart also maintains a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.
In addition to his blogs for HockeyBuzz every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, Stewart writes a column every Wednesday for the Huffington Post.