OFFICIATING MYTHS: Taking a look at reality

By USA Hockey Officiating Program

No one has ever implied that officiating is easy. This is especially true in ice hockey as the speed of the game and the special skill required (skating) to successfully officiate provides additional challenges that don’t exist in most other sports. Now throw in some of the common “myths” that influence the world of hockey officiating and one can see how the environment can be difficult for the next wave of officials. So let’s do our best Mythbusters impression, analyzing five of the more common myths and examining their plausibility.

MYTH #1: “Some rules don’t need to be enforced.”
Considering the officials’ primary role is to enforce the rules of the game to the best of their ability, this is one myth that becomes fairly easy to bust. Nowhere in the rule book or any of the other education materials does it suggest that a particular rule should not be enforced due to: 1.) it being inconvenient for one or more of the participating teams at this time; 2.) the fact that they are younger players, so they should not be expected to know that rule; or 3.) the official simply does not agree with that particular rule so has chosen to remove it from their arsenal of calls.

The first scenario occurs often in the third period of a close game, when the officials determine that they don’t want to influence the outcome and figuratively put the whistles in their pockets. However, this approach breaks down and is actually counter-productive because, by not calling the infraction that has occurred, they have indeed potentially influenced the outcome of the game. One of the participating teams has committed a violation that has provided them a competitive advantage and the rules mandate that the opposing team be rewarded with a power play. By not granting that power play, the officials are, in essence, negatively influencing that team’s ability to win the game just as much as the opposing team would have been if the infraction were properly enforced.

The second instance (young players shouldn’t be expected to know) is commonly used as an excuse to not call penalties, off-side or intentional off-side at the younger levels of play. Where this excuse fails is in the fact that part of the officials’ responsibility at the younger levels is to be a teacher, primarily teaching players, coaches and parents the rules of the game. The proper way to do that is to enforce the rules, and when the obvious intentional off-side isn’t called, there is no incentive for anyone involved to change the way they are playing. Remember, an intentional off-side occurs when a team has made no effort to create a legal play at the blue line. Most would be amazed at how quickly young kids adjust to the rule and make better plays when the rule is properly enforced and the coaches are held accountable for teaching players how to properly execute a legal zone entry.

The third example (disagreement with a particular type of call) is a scenario in which an official simply refuses to call certain rules. The “late avoidable check to an opponent who is no longer in possession and control of the puck” (see more on this later) or the intentional off-side (see above) comes to mind as the most common examples of this phenomena.

MYTH #2: “Finishing your check is a part of hockey.”
Actually, using your body to separate the opponent from the puck is part of hockey, so to an extent, this myth is actually proven valid. But checking an opponent after he or she has given up possession and control of the puck, and/or for the purpose of “punishing” or “intimidating” the opponent should, by rule, be penalized in every instance. The purpose of a body check is to separate an opponent from the puck, so it stands to reason that it’s not be legal to deliver an avoidable body check when your opponent no longer has the puck. Yet, this rule is too seldom enforced, even though it has been in the book since prior to the 1997 season, and for many years, has even been a playing rule point of emphasis.

MYTH #3: “You have to have played the game to be a good official.”
Granted, being a strong skater is critical to success at all levels of hockey, but an individual can become a strong skater without having extensive playing experience. As long as they have a basic understanding of the game combined with a willingness to learn the rules and a commitment to becoming the best official they can be, then they can and will have success as a USA Hockey official at all levels of play.

MYTH #4: “More officials on the ice equal less work for equal pay.”
There are actually two separate parts of this myth. The first is that if you add a third or fourth official on the ice, those who are officiating won’t have to work as hard and/or they’ll have less responsibility. The second component of this myth deals with the pay scale.

The reality is that officials still have to work hard and be committed to the same level of effort. Even though one might not have as much ice to cover from a skating standpoint, the more frequent stops and starts and skating style requires the officials to put in a similar level of physical effort. The mental requirement also remains at a consistent level, as there is still a job to do and now it involves being mentally in tune with a partner in order to serve the game as professionally as possible. Officials still need to skate hard, know the rules and place themselves in the proper position no matter how many are on the ice.

If handled improperly, the pay scale is sometimes a matter that discourages local officials. It can also discourage the local youth hockey association from asking for more officials. The bottom line is that a game fee is a game fee; the club is paying to have a game officiated, and regardless of how many officials are on the ice, the same number of goals are scored, penalties called and off-sides and icings committed. It really doesn’t matter to the club how many officials are needed to do that, as long as it gets done. So the difference is in how the officials split that money. It’s advisable to work together with the local club as partners in the task of officiating development, perhaps by asking the club to kick in a few more dollars to provide more development opportunity and enhance the accuracy and reliability.

The key factor to keep in mind is that any increase in game fees is not proportional to the increase in the number of officials. For example, if the game fee is $50 for two officials, it should not become $75 if the three-official system is used or $100 if four are used. The motivation for adding the additional officials should never be money. Instead, it should be providing additional opportunity in a more positive environment for the development of officials, while greatly enhancing the probability of a well-officiated game that contributes to an overall better environment for the players and coaches. A partnership between officials and clubs that allows them to find an acceptable compromise regarding reasonable fees is the goal, so the officials aren’t taking a sizable pay cut, nor is the club being gouged.

MYTH #5: “The world of officiating is always fair.”
The reality is that nobody gets the game(s) they want all the time, and everybody sometimes gets selected to work the 8 a.m. game in the cold rink instead of the big tournament in the nice building. Beyond those situations, there’s also the challenge of making the difficult call rather than taking the easy way out. Sure, the “easy way” guy or gal might not endure all the same slings and arrows, but there’s still a reward for doing the right thing, for making the difficult call, and sometimes that reward is merely the personal pride in knowing you did it right. But that matters to us and it should matter to you, too. You do the right thing because that’s who you are and that’s what’s best for the game. You hustle. You get into position. You work with conviction to make the right call, even the difficult ones. It might not always seem fair or easy, but you can and should still take pride in doing it right.

So there you have it – five common myths of officiating, some proven true and some confirmed as fallacy. So, what are the takeaways?

  1. Officials are expected to enforce all of the rules of the game at all times and under all circumstances.
  2. The purpose of a body check is to separate the opponent from the puck. If the opponent does not have the puck, it is illegal top body check him or her.
  3. Hard work and commitment are the primary indicators of someone who will be successful as an official at the USA Hockey levels of play.
  4. Regardless of the officiating system used, the work ethic and effort must be high for each individual official to successfully officiate that game.
  5. Just like life, officiating is not always fair, but the best officials are those who have the strength of conviction to always do their best to be in position to make the right call and then make it.