Hockey N.L. hopes letting young refs wear green will keep rowdy fans from seeing red

Teenage officials such as Nick Austin are happy Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador has adopted the green arm band program, which signifies the hockey official is under the age of 18. (Troy Turner/CBC - image credit)
Teenage officials such as Nick Austin are happy Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador has adopted the green arm band program, which signifies the hockey official is under the age of 18. (Troy Turner/CBC - image credit)
Troy Turner/CBC
Troy Turner/CBC

"Stupid ref!"

"Are you blind? Is the other team paying you?"

"You're an idiot!"

And those are the tame ones.

The verbal abuse of hockey officials is almost as old as the sport itself. It's commonplace at rinks in Newfoundland and Labrador and across the country. A fan or player or coach doesn't like the call, or series of calls, and they level their frustration against the game's officials.

Much of the time, especially in the minor ranks, the people who are spending weekends and late hours wearing the black and white stripes are youths, someone's teenage boy or girl.

Now an initiative that's taken off across Canada and found its way to hockey rinks in Newfoundland and Labrador is being met with praise from young officials.

The wearing of green arm bands — instead of the standard red — on the sleeves or hockey officials under 18 is meant to remind parents and coaches that the recipient of their anger and disdain is a teenager, and should be treated accordingly.

"Hockey Canada have been dealing with a fair amount of abuse of officials — well, abuse in the game -- and they're trying to change the culture," Ed Flood, Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador's referee-in-chief, told CBC News.

Troy Turner/CBC
Troy Turner/CBC

The program began in Quebec in 2020 and has been picking up steam across the country. Young officials say they're seeing a change in the response they're getting on the ice.

Austin, a U18 player in the Corner Brook Minor system, also enjoys reffing games. He says there's been a noticeable difference since he started wearing the green arm bands.

"I have had a few cases where there has been a couple coaches say some things, but the green arm band helps eliminate that," said Nick Austin, a second-year official. "And that's why I do appreciate this coming here in Newfoundland. I think it's a really good idea."

Aiden Sansome agrees. He started officiating this year, sharing his time in as a U15 player in Corner Brook.

"I think it's a great idea because … coaches, they might say some words, but when they look at the green arm band, you know, [they realize], 'OK, he's a junior ref,'" he said. "I find it's a really good idea because I'm not going to get anything said to me because I got the arm band on, and it just gives me more confidence as ref."

Sansome enjoys being part of the game in his capacity as an official, helping control the flow of play. He hopes the green arm bands will encourage youths to try officiating. It's not an easy job, he says, especially when people shout insults.

"It would hurt my feelings because you work so hard to do it and it destroys your confidence a bit."

Troy Turner/CBC
Troy Turner/CBC

Hockey N.L. hopes the program will keep the confidence of young referees intact and lead to greater retention among hockey officials.

Across the country, the turnover among young officials is high, says Flood, but Newfoundland and Labrador has better retention than most provinces.

While Flood has been referee-in-chief for about six years, he's been officiating for decades. The game itself is largely the same, he said, but there have been some noticeable changes.

"The games are tough to officiate now for totally different reasons," he said. "The rules have changed, the standard of play is different, fans are way more involved now than they ever have been. Parents are way more involved than they ever have been, which is not a bad thing."

The initiative reflects a changing culture around the game, he said.

"The abuse now is in phrases, in comments … that are being used [that] are just derogatory and they're just not socially accepted. When I was a young official, you could call out some ugly stuff in the rink.… Society is not going to allow that to happen anymore."

Flood says the the initiative is geared toward respect in the rink, and is not tied to the quality of officiating. He says officials will undergo the same training as before, and the green arm band program is more about alerting those watching the game than it is about a young official's training.

"They are 16 years old or 15 years old, so why don't we let them grow with the game and maybe we'll all enjoy it a whole lot more?"

Hockey N.L. is in the process of providing some education on the initiative, and hopes to have the green arm bands in every hockey association in the province by Easter week, when provincial tournaments are held.

Flood says he expects Hockey Canada will introduce stiffer penalties for the abuse of young officials and change hockey culture even more.

"Hopefully, next year … if the coach and/or a player abuses an official maybe [we] will make the suspension a little tiny bit stiffer just to say, 'Come on, gang, they're training to be quality kids, just like your hockey players are training to be quality kids as well."

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