Fearing canceled hockey games, this northern Ontario league will pay for new equipment for referees

The Northern Ontario Hockey Association (NOHA) has a great need for referees.

The league, whose teams have been on northern rinks since 1919, has lost about 200 on-ice officials in recent years, which could force the 2022-23 season to be canceled.

Jason Marchand, president of the association, said that COVID-19 played a “significant” role in keeping referees off the ice recently, but negative interactions between officials and hockey coaches over the years have also been a factor.

“Obviously the last few seasons, safety issues were an issue,” Marchand said. “But coach abuse was also a problem.”

“Maybe it’s intimidating as a 14- to 15-year-old, to be called out by an adult. That can obviously be intimidating,” Marchand said. “It’s not why we want to lose officials, especially those who have obviously put in the time to get certified and be able to get on the ice.”

Surprisingly, one of the barriers to new referrals getting involved is also the start-up cost, Marchand said.

“We figured it’s $400 to $500 for some new officials to get involved because of the jersey and the pants, but also the helmet and the visor and things like that.”

This season, with an aggressive recruiting push underway, the league is offering to subsidize equipment costs for aspiring umpires. This includes registration fees and kit (whistle, shirt and trousers) for all officials for the first time for the 2022/2023 season.

The Northern Ontario Hockey League has been in operation since 1919, according to the league’s website. (Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League)

The money was made available through the Ontario Sports Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting sport and physical activity in Ontario, and could be valued at $500 per new referral.

“We’re also trying to alleviate some of those concerns, the fact that typically new officials start at lower levels, so the game rates are a little bit lower,” Marchand said.

A referee officiating lower-level games could earn $25 for a 40-minute game, while referees at higher levels could earn up to $100 per game.

“If they’re just starting out … it would take quite a long period of time to get their money back,” he said.

“We’re trying to remove that financial piece and make it easier for them to earn money, especially for younger officers who might otherwise be looking at a part-time minimum wage job.”

“You know, it’s a good learning opportunity, but also a good opportunity to really improve as an officer, as they go along.”

Darren Long, who has been an official at all levels since the 1990s, said Hockey Canada, the sport’s national governing body, has done a “great job” of educating spectators, especially parents, on polite and appropriate interactions with referees.

“There has to be more,” Long said. “People have to respect it a lot more because as an officer it’s very difficult.”

“I’ve had a lot of referees come to me and say, ‘I can’t take the pressure. I have to quit’.”

“Not only do they have to deal with the pressure of the game, deal with coaches and players who are out there trying to win, which we respect and understand. But you also have to deal with the fans and the parents.”

“And sometimes it’s very difficult to deal with.”

He said without support programs, or a supportive league, referees who suffer abuse may decide to hang up their skates.

“We try to get better and better every game,” he said. “We need this support from everyone. And if we don’t get it from the fans, what will happen is that there will be more and more referees who will not go this way to referee the game of hockey.”

Long estimates the NOHA canceled about 10 percent of its games last year because of a shortage of referees. It’s a scenario Long said he hopes to avoid, and he also hopes fans, coaches and parents remember to respect the people who don the stripes.

“That’s the reason I started officiating way back when,” he said. “So, it was kind of a part-time job. But I love the game of hockey. And now the reason I’m doing it is it’s all about giving back.”

“And if I can leave the game better than it was when I started refereeing, that’s my goal, you know. We have the best game in the world. And if I can help make it better, that’s kind of the which I strive to do.”

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