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An adult league team trudges into the locker room following a rough 4-3 loss after giving up the lead:
“Can you believe the refs just lost us the game like that?”
“Even the other team told the refs right away that the fourth goal shouldn’t count. That was icing and everybody knew it.”
“Well, what can you do? This isn’t a gentleman’s league or something. It’s not like players are allowed to call their own fouls. We just have to go with what the referees say, even if both teams think it’s the wrong call.”
It may seem easy to blame referees in situations like this. A bad call was made so let’s blame the ref, right? The interaction between referees and players is more complicated than just a series of good and bad calls.
From youth hockey to the NHL, referees are put into abusive situations where they are expected to maintain a high level of performance. Referees are under intense pressure from players, fans, rink staff, hockey administration, reffing associations, even police forces and insurance agencies. The same could be said of the players. All of these groups have an interest in the game of hockey being played in a particular fashion. Referees must consider everything from officiating rule books to rink policies to municipal law while a play unfolds. Each organization has its own set of rules that people on the ice must abide by or risk further action.
Hockey, in many venues over time, has been played without any kind of official involved. Most of these “unofficiated” games are small community events led by players as pick-up hockey or shinny. As demonstrated in other sports and replicated in self-officiated hockey games, players are much more likely to hold themselves and their teammates accountable when there are no referees. Players on different teams are also more likely to deliberate together.
One sport to successfully incorporate a referee-free environment is ultimate frisbee, including at the sport’s World Ultimate Championships. As Tom Crawford, chief executive of USA Ultimate told the New York Times, in the referee-free environment of ultimate, “The athletes treat each other with dignity and respect. It’s a really unique ethos. It is baked into the sport.”
As the official rules of the “self-officiated” sport outline, the “responsibility for fair play” is placed on the players. “All players are responsible for knowing, administering, and adhering to the rules. The integrity of ultimate depends on each player’s responsibility to uphold the Spirit of the Game, and this responsibility should remain paramount.”
In ice hockey, the NHL has taken a different approach to limit unsportsmanlike conduct. At this level, rules have been implemented to eliminate behavior that attempts to intentionally manipulate officials, such as embellishment and diving. There are also rules designed to minimize disputes between players and officials, saying that no person involved in the game shall “challenge or dispute the rulings of an official before, during or after a game.”
When players are held accountable to referees instead of other players, deliberation often turns into litigation where the goal is to fool the referee into giving your team an advantage at any cost. Many players will go to extraordinary lengths to get a more favorable result from the officials. I’ve seen goalies tell referees that the puck went out of play, only to remove the puck from the back of the net once the ref turned away. I’ve seen forwards break their own stick in an effort to convince the ref that a penalty should have been called. These tactics are often a part of hockey culture, but not always.
Community decision-making, without official referees, is often underappreciated. The popular model of recreational adult hockey leagues today encourages players to trade in their sportsmanship and goodwill in exchange for being able to play a game with referees, winners and losers, scores and stats. Whether or not this is a good trade is dependent on the interests of the community playing the game.
Refs are not the villains and neither are the players. Rather, the institutions governing hockey often play an outsized role in shaping the values that characterize the game. These institutions, through an emphasis on early elite training, financial gains, and winning at any cost, can turn hockey into a game that is unpleasant for players and referees alike. To decide how to improve the game, leagues, governing bodies, and hockey players could ask, “What do we want hockey to look like?”, “What should the role of referees be if any?” or “What kind of social skills should the game reinforce?”
Too often the hockey world concerns itself with what hockey is instead of what it could be.
“So…wanna play some pick-up?”