There's a reason that 15,000 of Hockey Canada's 35,000 registered officials are under the age of 16 -- officiating hockey is a great way for players to see the game with new eyes.
The benefits of youth players learning to officiate are threefold: it gives them a new perspective on the game, it teaches them life skills and it's a way for them to give back to the hockey community.
"The game needs officials, we need good officials, and those are people that often come from a background of playing, and have a desire to have a positive impact in the game," Todd Anderson, Hockey Canada's Manager of Officiating, told NHL.com.
The fact that every hockey game from mini-mites to adult recreational needs officials to oversee it means there is a great need for referees. Thus, the sport of hockey gains in two tangible ways from youth players who both serve as officials and play competitively: the need for quantity and quality of officials is met while the officials themselves expand their skill set in a very unique way.
"Any time that we can put officials that have a passion for the game, a desire to do the best job that they can and provide the best playing environment for the players, that is what we are all after." -- Todd Anderson, Hockey Canada's Manager of Officiating
"I don't think they can improve their stickhandling or their shooting, or that kind of thing," Anderson said. "But I always find with a lot of young individuals that it does provide them with a different perspective on the game.
"It allows them to see and develop more vision, because the role of the official is to see the entire ice surface and be aware of the play and all of the players on it."
Chris Bishop from Chantilly, VA, is one such example. After playing the game competitively for six years, he took up officiating two years ago, and his view of the game will never be the same again.
"As a ref, you want to keep the play in front of you so you can see everything that is happening … you see the game from an entirely different aspect," Bishop said.
Anderson and Bishop explained that officiating also allows players to analyze the various tactics different teams employ, it teaches a better understanding of the rules and how the game is meant to be played, and it improves skating skills. More important than the on-ice skills, however, are the life skills that officiating teaches young players.
Officials are given a large amount of responsibility and are expected to control the pace of the game, maintain safety, and communicate with coaches, parents and players to ensure a smooth and fair contest for all parties involved. Perhaps all of this pressure explains why 13-year-old Tova Schell was so nervous when she officiated her first game recently.
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"When I walked into the arena, no one was looking at me, but it felt like everyone was looking at me," Schell said. "I was so afraid I was going to forget something, even though there's only like five things that you have to do to get ready. Now, I see that it's really hard to be out there because you have all those parents and you have the kids and stuff."
The enormous amount of pressure on young officials is a great way to teach responsibility, leadership, time management, communication, and decision making. Because the role of the official is to provide the best possible playing experience for everyone involved by ensuring the game is played fairly, it is also a great way to teach excellence. As Bishop explained, he wants to make sure he gets the calls right and the game is called completely fair.
"Any time that we can put officials that have a passion for the game, a desire to do the best job that they can and provide the best playing environment for the players, that is what we are all after," Anderson said.
Good officiating is essential to the growth of hockey, which is why it's so important for youth players to invest in the game through officiating.
Schell played for two years with Girls' Hockey Calgary and Blackfoot Hockey Association in South East Calgary before getting certified as a level one official by Hockey Canada. This season she will officiate over 30 games for her local hockey associations on top of her regular playing schedule.
"The girls would look up at us and you could see that they were happy to be out there and stuff," Schell said. "I want younger kids to play hockey because hockey is not just about the game but it's also about teamwork, and I've had a lot of good experiences in hockey so I want the girls that I ref for to have those experiences, too.
"Hockey has meant a lot to me, and after these girls are done playing hockey they can ref like me and give back and be mentors to other girls as well."
That is exactly the sort of recruitment and retention model that Hockey Canada hopes to develop in its aspiring officials. Age 10 is generally the minimum to officiate, and all officials must register and take officiating courses from either USA Hockey or Hockey Canada. The beginning of the registration process for both governing bodies is in August.