Hockey, I was reminded recently, can be a very emotional game.
It was during another weekend spent watching my youngest son darting and dashing and generally having fun despite a score that was not going his team's way in the sort of game that would have made me crazy when I was his age. Fortunately he's a pretty even keel type of kid. He hates losing, but he saves his venting for the car ride home.
Not everyone finds it so easy to keep their cool in the middle of the action, though. Some of the kids were throwing their arms up in frustration. More than a few parents were heard ranting.
But it wasn't our team's ineffective passing or sloppy defense that was the object of their ire. It was the officials. The stripes made for an easy target, but as the aggrieved leatherlungs shouted for penalties and control it was clear that they had no earthly clue what these men and women on the ice were actually responsible for.
Ken Reinhard, Referee-In-Chief of USA Hockey's Rocky Mountain District, wants to clear things up.
“Referees call penalties for actions by players or coaches that fall outside the rules of the game,” he said. “Through the calling of penalties, it's hoped the player changes his behavior.
"But officials cannot control the game, he said. "That's up to the players, coaches and most important, the parents."
"Players control the game through the choices they make while playing," he said. "Coaches control players by granting or denying ice time. If a player fails to play within the rules, regardless of whether or not an official penalizes that action, it is the coach's responsibility to teach proper and safe play and discipline that player by denying ice time. That is control of the game. If a coach fails to act on his authority, then it's the coach who has failed to teach and control the player.
“Parents also control the player by approving or disapproving of the play of their child," he said. "If a player has a greater fear of a referee calling a penalty than he does of his coach's discipline or his parents' approval, then something is wrong.”
That's the stop-you-in-your-tracks truth right there, something that everyone involved in the minor hockey chain should take a minute to chew on.
Reinhard backed it up with a story from his own youth hockey days. He'd delivered a vicious slash to an opposing player's wrist that escaped the attention of the referee ... but not his father. When he came off the ice, his dad took his stick away and snapped it in half. "You use your stick for shooting, passing and defending. That's all. Understand?"
Reinhard took the lesson to heart, one of many he picked up along the road as a hockey lifer. He worked his way up the minor hockey ranks as a player, eventually skating a year of juniors in the same circuit as Joey Mullen (“Our teams played each other,” he demurred. “Trust me. Joey wasn’t worried about me.”) He started officiating in New York and New Jersey back in 1973 when he was a freshman in college. “I needed the ice time and the money didn’t hurt either,” he said. Turned out that was his real calling on the ice. He went on spend the next four decades wearing the stripes, working youth, college, junior and some low level minor pro leagues.
He finally hung up his skates at the end of the 2012-13 season, but continues to impact the game as in his position with USA Hockey.
Forty years of experience have given Reinhard a unique perspective that allows him to deftly handle problems and foster a better understanding of the role of the officials in the game today.
“Referees call penalties after something happens,” he said. “We have no way to prevent something from happening. We can’t protect the player, ensure their safety or prevent injuries. Everything a referee does is a reaction to something that occurred. Whether it's an offside, icing or a penalty, it has to happen first. There's no provision in the rule book for us to stop play on the belief that something bad is about to happen or make up rules to eject a player who is misbehaving. We report the news, we don’t make it.”
Officials do, however, make the occasional gaffe. No one feels worse about it after it happens, but it is inevitable.
Reinhard's advice? Get over it.
“Referees make mistakes,” he said. “Players make mistakes. Coaches make mistakes. It's a game played by humans, coached by humans and officiated by humans. But players have more opportunity through the course of a game to influence the outcome than a referee who just 'blew' a call.
“A missed offside, a bad penalty call or non-call? Those are mistakes, but no greater than [butchering] a pass, shooting wide of a yawning net, missing a check, making a bad line change or taking an undisciplined penalty. It's all part of the game. Players need to work through it, coaches need to coach around it and referees [have to] work hard not to make the same mistake again. These things happen but they do not cause a team to lose.”
That reality isn't always easy for an aggrieved party to swallow, especially when passions are running high. But Reinhard says it's important for everyone to focus on the elements of the game that they can control. He said he often refers back to the words of one of college hockey's greatest coaches.
“Jackie Parker from Boston University told his players that there are three jobs going on out there. You play, I coach and they officiate. If you're doing your job, you can’t be focused on their job or my job. Once you start worrying about what the referees are doing, you lose your focus as a player. So, you do your job, I’ll do mine and they'll do theirs.”