I have a theory: using young, local referees without excessive training and regular auditing is going to ruin youth sports. I’ve seen many examples of it, but what happened today really cemented it clearly for me. This morning I took my son to Keene, New Hampshire to play their ~10-year-old “squirt B” hockey team. My son's team lost 4-0, and it’s not the loss that has me upset. They’ve lost plenty of games and they’ll lose more. What has me upset is the fact that the only way they could have won that game was if they showed up ready to play dirty. Instead, my son’s team played the game they’ve been taught: play hard, play to win, but play fair and play your best.
I can only assume the other team played the game they were taught: play to win, at all costs, and minor penalties like tripping, checking, and holding the goalie are accepted parts of the game.
I base this assumption about the other team on (a) the way they played and (b) the way the game was refereed. No penalties were called whatsoever. I’m not saying it was called unfairly; the refs did a great job of being nearly 100% consistent on both sides of the puck. There was no obvious favoritism. The problem is that they didn’t call a damned thing.
You see, at this age and in this program the refs are typically teenagers and presumably local ones at that. Yes, I’m sure that USA Hockey dictates they take some certification course, but there’s no way that course, however long it is, would undo the years of conditioning they’ve had. Those refs we saw today in Keene were almost certainly raised through the same hockey program that still exists today in Keene. And if that’s true, then those refs were taught early on that tripping, checking, and holding the goalie are accepted parts of the game and are to be overlooked.
I’m very curious to see what happens next weekend when that very same team comes to our rink to play us at home. A game that will more than likely be refereed by kids that were raised through our program and are far more likely to call all the aforementioned penalties (if they see them, of course, and I get that the refs will always see a different game on the ice than we see from the stands).
But it’s more than that. Because they’re on the ice, we (as parents) are looking to these refs as the main people who can keep our kids safe. Tripping isn’t illegal because someone decided that would make the game more interesting. It’s illegal because if it happens all the time someone’s eventually going to get hurt. The same is true for not allowing checking at this age. And when you’ve got kids out there getting frustrated by inconsistent refereeing, THAT is when levelheadedness goes out the window and kids start hurting each other.
My son LOVES contact sports. In addition to hockey he plays football and lacrosse. He’s already been through three broken bones (none, funnily enough, from any of the aforementioned sports!). I wouldn’t be surprised to see him go through more of that before he’s through. It’s all part of it. But I do expect the refs to do their level best to keep him safe, and the biggest key to that is simply having an audited level of consistency throughout each league. That way the kids (in a general sense) as well as parents and coaches know what to expect and local “customs” don’t change the nature of the game from town to town. Organizations like USA Hockey exist for a reason, and it’s about time they stepped up and solved this issue.
As an aside: Yes, I realize that in pro sports there’s significant inconsistency amongst refereeing. I feel that this consistency is MORE important in childrens sports because this is where they’re learning. They need that to stay safe. We as parents need that for the kids to stay safe, and it needs to be fixed.