While they wear stripes, at times minor hockey officials feel like they are wearing a bullseye for a uniform.
Profanity, obscenity and sometimes even objects are hurled their way on a weekly basis from the stands.
"You learn to ignore it because our job is to stop the situation from escalating," said one ref, speaking with a demeanour and perspective well beyond his teenaged years. "It really doesn’t happen that much, but when it does you remember it."
The stress of the job has created a dearth of officials in some areas, but Brian Fleming, head official for Hockey Brandon, said Brandon is fortunate to have 80 to 100 officials in its database.
While approximately 20 new officials are trained each year, on average about 10 to 12 actually join the reffing ranks.
"There are some that don’t stay for a variety of reasons," he said, "and some quit because of the fan factor."
Brandon has produced high-level referees such as Matt Kirk and Patrick Gagnon, who are both working in the Western Hockey League.
Fleming said it’s not hard to recruit refs, but developing them and keeping them is a challenge. It’s a stark contrast in rural areas, however, where recruitment is down and in some cases almost impossible.
In Winnipeg, the minor hockey association will require one family member to take an online course called Respect In Sport after an incident involving an official, a player and a coach last weekend.
Fleming isn’t sure how much of an effect the course will have on parents, adding that for the most part there is a high level of respect for refs, coaches and players in Westman.
A former Brandon senior official said educating parents is a positive step and would like to see a similar program implemented here.
"They need to hold parents accountable for their actions," he said. "At least now Hockey Winnipeg has that card in their hand and they can tell parents: ‘Hey, you took this course and you signed this certificate, so we’re going to hold you accountable.’"
He remembers when it was commonplace, particularily in smaller communities, for coaches to come into the refs’ room before games or between periods.
Intimidation can be one of the biggest impediments in a referee’s growth.
"The big point for me is most of the time the refs that are looking after minor hockey games are kids and they’re learning, too," he said. "Just like a player that has a coach and goes out there and make a few mistakes, well, the officials are going to make mistakes, too."
The constant chatter from the bench or the stands can steal young officials’ best attribute — their confidence, he said.
"It takes a strong person to get through it as a young official," he said. "Confidence is the biggest thing you want in a young official, and it’s real easy to lose and tough to get back. If they lose their confidence then they’re scared to make a call, even when it’s the right call."
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