What is our Role as Hockey Officials?
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A crucial part of being a good official is to understand what our roles are within the game itself. Of course, you can figure this out by reading a rulebook, and looking at the formal roles of officials, but by this I am talking about the bigger picture.
Something important that I was taught early-on by some terrific mentors is that we are there to support the game, not to be the stars of it. We have an important duty to fulfill, but make no mistake about it, people are there to watch the players perform. They want to see great playmaking, smart defensive tactics, unbeatable goaltending. We are servants of the game, there to make sure the players are kept safe and that the rules are followed.
When I was still playing, I heard that Bob Johnson, the famous Calgary Flames coach, once told a young defenseman that “if I didn’t notice you during the game – that probably meant you were having a good game”. The reasoning behind this is that usually a player, especially a defenseman or a goaltender, sticks out if they make a mistake. I think the same idea could be applied to officials, that often if you are not noticed it’s because you had a good game. Of course, there are always times when you need to make your presence known and make a critical call that could impact the game, however if you manage a game well, coaches will often have confidence in your decisions.
“Game management” is one of the most repeated phrases you will hear around officials rooms across the world. If you are new to this term, game management refers to an official’s capacity to carefully choose which calls are made in a game, to ensure the game goes well, and to the highest level it possibly can, without compromising the safety of the players or the integrity of the game. I like to compare a great official managing a game to an orchestra conductor leading a group of musicians through a symphony.
Celebrated hockey broadcaster Ron McLean, a referee himself, once offered the powerful analogy of how to manage a game properly, saying it is like holding a small bird in your hand. If you grip it too tightly, you will kill the bird, but on the other hand, if you don’t grip it tight enough, it will fly away. This is like managing a hockey game, because if you call too many penalties you can kill a game by removing the flow of the game, but at the same time, if you don’t call enough, things can get out of hand quickly. (For some examples of this, search for some good old-fashioned hockey brawls on YouTube).
Now there are some officials in the hockey world who don’t like the term or the idea of managing a game. Some prefer a stricter view of officiating, where they have standards, that once a player goes outside, are penalized to provide more consistency. This school of thought thinks that officials who simply manage games are too compromising.
Whatever your view is – it must be said that officiating a game is getting beyond knowing the rule book and developing a feel for the game. You need to develop the confidence and experience to be able to understand how to make calls even in difficult situations.