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Canadian minor hockey officials work hard to recruit, retain, young referees

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EDMONTON - Chase Halyk is a zebra whether he likes it or not.

When he watches hockey on TV, he finds himself focusing not on the play but on the offside calls. Once, while waiting his turn to referee a minor hockey game, he noticed the teams in the game before were stuck without officials.

"One of the refs who was supposed to be there didn't show up, so I throw on my skates and away I go."

"If you're passionate about the game, you want to go out there."

Halyk and the 32,000-plus like him, from young teenagers on up, are the ones Hockey Canada is determined to hold onto and develop in a field that that has traditionally brought high turnover and, when parents or coaches get abusive, unpleasant headlines.

"Officiating is very important to our game right now in almost every sector of Canada - how to attract how to retain, how to develop them," said Todd Anderson, director of officiating for Hockey Canada.

The 17-year-old Halyk, who lives in Leduc, Alta., has been wearing the stripes for four years, and signed on after he let his own hockey career lapse. He wanted to get back into the game when his younger brother joined a team.

He now has all the work he can handle and knows every crack, crevice and weird board bounce in hockey barns in New Sarepta, Leduc, Calmar and Beaumont, south of Edmonton.

While he has not had a lot of trouble with abusive coaches or parents ("I had to eject one parent for mouthing off and being an idiot") he has heard the horror stories. He says it just takes one young kid getting sworn at one time by one coach to destroy an officiating career before it has even begun.

"Some kids just can't take it and that is the reason we lose a lot of our refs."

But Hockey Canada and provincial organizations are working to overcome those and other challenges.

In Nova Scotia, minor hockey officials have launched a pilot project with Hockey Canada that will educate parents about rink etiquette and impose sanctions, including banishment from the rink, for those who don't comply.

"We were finding that with a lot of young kids they take abuse right off the bat and then they'd quit. Now we're starting to have a support system," said Phil Power, co-ordinator of officiating for Hockey Nova Scotia.

Whereas years ago, training for officials used to be a rule book, a speech, and the address of the rink for the first game, officials now get more intensive help.

They learn the nuts and bolts of the game - penalties, where to position themselves and game management - but also take part in case-scenarios and role-playing situations on ways to deal with abusive coaches, said Power.

Hockey Canada has also launched an intensive public relations campaign to educate parents and has spearheaded mini-summits throughout the country to gauge opinions and get ideas from communities on the state of the game.

Both Power and Anderson agree the main challenge is the paradox: in major centres there are lots of refs but perhaps not enough games, while in smaller centres there are too few refs and not enough games.

"We have to find a way to get them the games," said Anderson. "Just as our players want to move up the ladder and be better, so do the officials."

One positive development has been more females coming forward to referee - about 1,500 this year.

"That may not seem like a large percentage but it's dramatically growing because of the acceptance of girls playing the game," said Anderson.

Halyk says for him, the reward comes outside the rink as much as inside by delivering the confidence to keep his head while those around him are losing theirs.

"If there's a goal, I sell it. I let everybody know that it's in."

"With penalties, the hand goes up. Everybody knows what it is when it comes to me. Everybody knows what's going on."

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