The Zebra Perspective ---- Communication and Respect
Hello XHL’ers, this is the first in what I hope will be a running series of columns about officiating. The purpose of these columns is to give players some insight into what we, as officials, are doing/seeing/saying…so that we can continue to build mutual respect. That respect is built on communication, so I thought we’d start there – and hopefully clear up a few common misconceptions.
I officiate a lot of sports, especially in high school, and before every PIAA contest we are required to read the following: “PIAA requires all sports officials to enforce the sportsmanship rules for coaches and contestants. Actions meant to demean opposing players, coaches, spectators, or officials are not in the highest ideals of interscholastic education and will not be tolerated. Let today’s contest reflect mutual respect”. Sounds great, right? But what does ‘mutual respect’ really mean?
To me, it means several things. It means respecting your opponent’s skills and their right to participate, and avoiding taunting/disrespectful language at all times. It means respecting the fact that the game officials are in charge of the game, and that their decisions are final. For officials, it means engaging players and coaches in a professional manner and keeping things under control – even when tensions flare.
Now – we are NOT the PIAA. We are an adult rec hockey league, so I think we all understand the rules – and the stakes – are a little different. But I feel strongly that the mutual respect should be every bit as strong here in our league as it is on a high school field. How do we get there?
It all starts with communication. Between opposing teams, that communication should be minimal or nonexistent. In my experience, ‘trash talking’ can accelerate into a scuffle very rapidly. Officials can and should penalize taunting with little to no warning. Taunting is very much a suspendable offense.
Now, the ‘elephant in the room’ – communication between players and officials. I think there are some misconceptions out there about when and how to discuss a call with a ref. I also think that we as refs can always do a better job communicating with players as well. Here are a few keys that I think can help ease tensions:
#1 - In general, only the captain should be discussing calls. Here is the exact passage from the XHL rule book:
A MINOR PENALTY (2 Minutes) shall be assessed to any player other than the Captain who disputes the ruling of an official. If the captain has a dispute, he may, if the referee allows, question the call. However, the referee may determine at his own discretion whether the call warrants a discussion.
a.) A GAME-MISCONDUCT PENALTY (Suspension) may be assessed if any further challenge persists.
As such, as refs we should always be willing to discuss things with the captain after a close/controversial call is made. We are under NO obligation to discuss calls with other members of the team, and aside from the captain we will generally refuse such discussions. It is important for non-captains to understand this rule, and even more important for captains to remind their teammates of it.
#2 Captains: when discussing calls with refs, less is more. If you’re someone who never ever complains unless there’s a legitimate discrepancy – and you always do so in a calm, polite tone – you will have our undivided attention as soon as you ask for a conference. If, on the other hand, you complain about every single call against you or your teammates – well, refs are human too and we will tune you out…even when you have a legitimate gripe.
#3 there are also times to gripe and times to wait. When a player receives a misconduct, for example - that is the absolute wrong time for said player to engage the ref. We won’t even engage the captain for a long discussion in the ‘heat of the moment’. Those are good times for players to take a step back, let the situation calm down, and focus on the game. Another terrible time to engage a ref is immediately after any game. Refs are trained to leave immediately after games – and especially after a tense/controversial game. Games like that require time for cooler heads to prevail all around. Now, having said that – if, the next day, you still feel there is an issue that should be addressed – please contact me. I welcome those discussions; that’s how we all get better at this.
#4 Ref-to-player communication: This is something I think we need to get better at as officials – and, frankly, something that players need to accept as a help rather than getting defensive. ‘Preventative officiating’ is, by and large, officials talking to players during a game to keep action flowing; letting players know when their actions are approaching penalty levels; and letting players know that their actions were perceived as legal. We should NOT officiate only with the whistle. Examples: when a ball is pinned against the wall, giving a command to ‘move the ball’ rather than immediately calling a penalty; when a player gets a stick high but doesn’t make contact with a player; when there’s body contact, but not enough to warrant a roughing call. Hopefully, you get the idea. Our job is to make sure everyone is on the same page. Your job, as players, is to understand that when we do communicate during the play, we are doing it STRICTLY to help you. We don’t want to call penalties, so our warnings and commands are meant to keep the game moving and let everyone know when they are getting ‘close to the edge’. I’ve encouraged all of the XHL refs to communicate more during the play.
Now, none of us are perfect. Refs miss calls every single game. We see it at every level, up to and including the NHL (this Pens-Caps series has been Exhibit A for inconsistent officiating). But I ask you to remember – we are all playing in a non-contact rec league in Reynoldsville…not full-contact ice hockey in the ECHL.
This is not a dictatorship, but during the game it’s not a democracy, either. In the end, the on-court refs HAVE to have the final say, and I’m asking you to respect that. We will do our best to improve our work and communication, it’s a never-ending process. If you have any suggestions to make things better, or if you’re interested in becoming an official, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks, and see you all at the ‘Drome!