Complaining about the refs in sports is a tradition that dates back to basically the start of sport, and the lower you get in the sports world, the louder it seems to get from the fans about the quality of officiating.
And when you’re in a place in the hockey world like the Federal Hockey League is, it’s safe to say you’re not getting the best refs the sport has to offer.
Then Sunday’s incident amped things up even further, with some saying, “Well if the refs had done a better job this wouldn’t have happened!” Which is a REALLY terrible excuse for trying to explain why Robbie Nichols did what he did.
Now, before we get fully into this, let me say that I have the utmost respect for the refs that suit-up for the FHL and deal with what they have to on a nightly basis for $225 a game, and about half that if you’re a linesman. I’ve officiated everything from baseball to basketball, soccer and football, and even stuff like volleyball, I sympathize with you, and have some understanding of what you go through, even if I personally haven’t worked a FHL game.
But I’ll also admit that the officiating in the FHL, and the SPHL as well, can be less than stellar at times.
And in the FHL this year, in every group on Facebook that I lurk in, game night turns into nothing but complaining about calls, or how bad the refs are, or how the players aren’t safe, or how the biased refs are out to get their favorite team. Then it turns into something like, “WE NEED BETTER REFS!” with no further explanation of how you do that.
And yesterday another fan commented on one of our stories on Facebook with that same the complaint about the refs, to which we responded:
“Honest question: How do you propose the FHL get better refs? I’ve seen 900 people say something like you said, but nobody has a solution for how to make the officiating better.”
And, you will be stunned to learned they did not have an answer or solution as to how to make the officiating better in the FHL.
I don’t think fans truly understand how hard it is to officiate a game like hockey. Even at the FHL and SPHL levels, it’s the fastest moving sport there is, the players have weapons in their hands and on their feet, and fighting is encouraged. Oh and on top of needing to have keen awareness and a sense for the game and calls, you need to be a borderline world-class skater to even be in the conversation to be a professional referee. I’ve played hockey since I was three-years-old, continue to play at age 30, and I can honestly say I am probably not a good enough skater to even work at the FHL level.
Even at the FHL level, these are not just random guys who know how to skate like a local men’s league. These guys work other professional leagues, or work NCAA D1 or D3 games, maybe ACHA games, and shoot, we regularly exchange messages with a former FHL ref who used to do games in Germany’s second division, roughly the equivalent of the ECHL over here.
Here’s another thing you need to know about the refs in the FHL: They are just like the players, and trying to move up. No ref’s goal is to make it to the FHL and stop there. No, they’re trying to get to the SPHL, then the ECHL, and maybe beyond. Or trying to get to the USHL or Division 1 hockey. So even if you get what you deem to be a good ref in the FHL, they’re likely not there for long.
And this gets back to the original question of the post: Just how the hell could you, if it’s even possible, improve the officiating in the FHL?
Well, we reached out Carolina Thunderbirds GM Scott Brand, who has some experience in this area as he was the Head of Officiating for the USHL, and it turns out he read our minds and has had this goal in mind for a while now for the FHL.
“First and foremost, I blame teams, ownership leagues and the actions of several coaches why officiating sucks, its is NOT the officials fault, the leagues (70% of them) don’t give the officials the tools be successful,” Brand said. “Stop looking at the officials as a group of blind, cheaters – they are some of the best guys in the world. No one wants to suck as an official- and they are OUR (league) officials, if they suck the league sucks.”
Well, that didn’t really answer our question of how you make officiating better, but Brand pressed on and chimed in with what he thinks the FHL, and others, should do, and plan to do, to improve things for officials going forward.
“Stop looking at them as an expense,” Brand continued. “They are an investment, just like the players and coaches. They are in charge of the safety of our product, and if we do our best to put the best officials on the ice – they will raise the level of the league, they will product the game and the players, they will bring dividends.”
And in Brand’s opinion, getting better officials doesn’t necessarily mean just giving them a pay increase, but giving them additional resources both on and off the ice. Including things like video review.
“(The) league should have a “staff”, a full time Referee in Chief,” Brand added. “They need to be able to take pride in the place they work. In the USHL, we battled with coaches as officials every game, but at the end of the day we all realized we are in the same boat. The FHL is a good league to be from. But we need to invest, and it would not be a lot of money in creating and developing our own officiating program. I will be proposing this in May.”
As for what that program would entail, well, Brand of course had ideas on this, and what the FHL needs to change on-ice for next season.
“We should find six to nine former players, get 3 houses and run them all year. The beginning will be a disastrous, but we are at that point now, but by the middle of the season, wow. And then keep a few veterans around. And it must be four-man, and officials must get video. I will drive this through the league.”
The four-man crews are already taking effect this season as a result of Sunday’s incident. And while we’re still a ways away from next season, and we know that not everything Brand proposes will end up happening, it’s good to see that at least one person within the FHL is actively working to try and improve the league’s officiating, and the league as a whole.