“Midget AAA is one of the hardest levels to ref...because of the parents.” – NHL referee.
An hour and a half north of Toronto, near the gateway to cottage country, lays a town called Coldwater with a population of about 3,000. Like every small center in Canada, it has its hardware store on the corner, its neighbourhood cafe on the main stretch and its arena next door to the legion.
Away from the lights and exposure of the big-city NHL, hockey sprouts from mites to midgets – and, of course, extends into refereeing.
For 10 years I learned how to be an official with the Ontario Minor Hockey Association in Coldwater, where I played minor hockey. What started with shivering through Saturday morning tykes, finished with midget AAA experience and out-of-town playoff games from Gravenhurst to Creemore. Aside from being taught the rulebook and proper procedure, my eyes were opened to a spattering of images that would make you shake your head – or hold it high. By the time I had to move on, I’d come to see the sport I love through a whole new lens.
Minor hockey has its good (even great), bad (even sad) and ugly (even gut-wrenching) moments, all of which makes it interesting and shocking, giving us stories to tell and lessons to learn.
The ugly came in the early stages of a tournament I was working in Rama, Ont., around the turn of the century. The purpose of the event was to give some underprivileged kids a taste of competitive hockey and something to play for. As far as I understood they weren’t enrolled in minor hockey, but they all seemed to know the basics, like where a winger should be in the defensive zone.
The problem was they were all at different skill levels. There were powerful skaters and weak ones, big kids and pint-sized ones. There were three different age levels and the peewees were allowed to hit. In the first game I knew there was going to be a problem right off the bat. One of the bigger kids was visibly much quicker and smoother on his skates and from the drop of the puck it was apparent all he was interested in was bodychecking.
Every early hit was clean, though I held my breath every time: this player had clearly not been taught how to properly throw a check.
And then it happened. His opponent was playing the puck off the boards and had his back turned to the play; the kid came in just like every hit before, but this time hammered someone head-first into the boards.
Silence hushed and an ambulance had to be called as the checked player lay on the ice. The hitter was immediately ejected and the mother of the injured boy was panicked. The game resumed after a long delay and it actually came right down to the wire. Without further incident, the team with the injured player lost and I was already worrying about the next group. That’s when the coach of the losing team decided to walk across the ice yelling at us for not removing the aggressive player from the game earlier. Why were they allowed to hit at all?
The bad came, of all places, at the most innocent level. In my second year I was doing one of many tyke games in a day-long, home-ice tournament with a guy named Mark, whom I often reffed with through the years and who can attest to my stories.
It was the afternoon and we had already become familiar with a coach from the Port Carling team, who seemed to be a little cranky earlier in the day. Well, we hadn’t seen anything yet.
Often in tyke, when kids are learning to skate, players will try to get the puck and bump into each other because they don’t know how to stop or turn. Some parent always yells for bodychecking calls, but when this coach thought one five-year-old maliciously mauled his player, he saw fit to take a Don Cherry pose over the boards and, with his ripe-red face and bulging eyes, yell a profanity-inspired statement that insinuated we were blind.
The arena went dead silent. Mark and I looked wide-eyed at each other from across the rink in shock for a split second before we blew the whistle and ejected the coach from the game. It takes a lot of guts and professionalism to yell at 14- and 15-year-old refs during a five-year-old’s day.
The good – and trust me, it’s appreciated when it shows up – came at another hometown event years later.
It was the championship game of an atom rep tournament and Mark was my wingman again. We had done the majority of the games all day long and, quite honestly, I remember it as one of the best officiating jobs we ever did.
During the up-tempo final, one player came streaking down the wing and cut towards the net. The defender was almost beat, but sprawled at the last second, hitting the puck off the attacker’s stick and tripping him up in the follow-through. The players crashed into the goalie, whose knee was blown out on the play.
With only one ’tender on the team, the game, unfortunately, couldn’t continue. The Zamboni door was lifted so the ambulance could pull in the back and some parents from the team – including the goalie’s – came onto the ice to the net, where Mark and I stood with the kid and his trainer. Instead of being upset and angry, they were pleasant and completely understood that specific play. In fact, I’ll never forget one of them telling Mark and myself how good of a job the refs had done all day long. And for that I’ll never forget the atom team from Mariposa.
The point is, there’s more to the zebras than the black and white expectations thrust upon them, even as kids. It’s a necessity that is shamelessly abused, but brilliantly enjoyable. There were times I hated it, but I genuinely miss making the big call or non-call that someone has to endure.
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