The Importance of Communication for a Hockey Official
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Communication is such an important component of being an official that merits a section of its own. Whether you are working a kids’ game on a Sunday morning, or game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, communication is a must-use tool that any official worth his or her salt must incorporate.
You will often hear the term “rapport” used. The reason that rapport is used is because it connotes a level of trust that officials can develop between themselves and players and coaches. When you establish rapport, you can develop a mutual respect between yourself and teams that will allow you to communicate openly and honestly between them.
Officials cannot be robots. They need to talk with the players to let them know when they are on that edge, or to tell coaches when the line changes are getting too loose. The primary reason for communicating is in regards to penalty situations – either telling a player what they did wrong, or letting a player know he is coming close to taking a penalty. If a referee (or linesman) can work with the players to keep them out of the penalty box (with certain limits), that is an ideal situation. Referees are not there simply to enforce the rules, but to work with both teams involved to ensure the game is the best it can be.
If as a referee, you notice a player keep using his stick to perform minor slashes or hooking, a quick talk by the bench or after the whistle saying “play the puck” or “watch the stick” can help the player know he is on the edge of taking a penalty.
Similarly, if teams are getting chippy after the whistle, a warning to both benches that you will only take one player gives the teams an opportunity to alter their play before a referee has to intervene. Being able to communicate and establish a rapport with coaches and players, and allows them an opportunity to ask questions.
Now, certainly if you are working minor hockey, and only see teams occasionally, it might be difficult to establish rapport, but you can make attempts to open lines of communication by greeting the coaches and introducing yourself and opening a dialogue.
Even at the professional levels there are challenges to building rapport, especially considering how closely players and coaches are monitored, which prevents a more relaxed setting and environment. You can see exceptions with referees at the NHL level, especially Wes McCauley, and I think he is a great person to learn and emulate as an official.
A big part of communication is to not be overly sensitive when officiating a game. Coaches and players will be emotional and will say things that may bother or annoy you, however, if you penalize that action you will quickly shut down attempts at building rapport. We cannot have egos on the ice! That doesn’t mean that we allow blatant disrespect, but rather take a step back and understand the emotions involved on the ice.
You need to be somewhat reserved and not aggravate an already emotional game, and absolutely be careful with the language you are using. You need to respond to disrespect with respect. If we respond to verbal jousting by cursing or yelling, it only reinforces the idea that the teams can talk with us in the same manner.
Now of course, a big part of communication and rapport is not simply telling players and coaches, but listening to their concerns, and of course admitting when we missed or made an incorrect call. In my experience, this has been a great asset to have. When you know you made the right call, stand by it, but when you know you made a mistake, admit to it. This will greatly enhance the respect teams will have for you and allow you to build rapport. It shows that we are approachable and willing to admit faults.
Like I said, there are times where we need to stand-up and advocate for a call with all effort, but there are also times we need to demonstrate our humility and admit to faults. Understand what situations require which response.
As a referee, you need to understand when to approach the bench. Sometimes there will be decisions the referee makes that might be right, but are unpopular, for example surrounding an injured player on a clean hit. You know the coach might be livid, and approaching the bench might result in that coach letting his frustration go on you. And of course, since you need to uphold the integrity and authority of your role as a referee may need to penalize those actions. Simply steering clear of the bench and not providing the coach an outlet to explode is a great way of preventing bench penalties.
So, communication is important, but you need to get a feel for when to apply it, and when to not use it. This comes with experience. Ultimately, in your approach to the game, you should make every effort to be as communicative and as open as possible.