MARLBOROUGH, Mass. – It’s approaching 10 p.m., and the line that snakes through the upper lobby at the New England Sports Center shows no signs of shrinking. Nobody is leaving without getting what they came for.
It isn’t the Boston Bruins alumni, who had just played a charity game against an all-star team of amputee players, that everybody is waiting for. To the kids participating at the 2014 USA Hockey Disabled Festival the prize for their patience is much bigger than that.
Every disabled player and family member will leave here with more than just an autographed team photo of the 2014 U.S. Sled Hockey Team. They will carry with them a memory that will serve as a source of inspiration moving forward.
“These kids look up to these guys like they’re [Alex] Ovechkin or [Sidney] Crosby. They’re their heroes, and they give them a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow to shoot for,” says J.J. O’Connor, the chairman of USA Hockey’s Disabled Section, who considers the presence of these Paralympians the crowning jewel of this weekend celebration of disabled hockey.
The 13 Paralympians who came here with their gold medals in tow are happy to oblige. For many of them, they have been on the other side of the autograph table, and giving up a few hours of their time and a little writer’s cramp is a small price to pay it forward.
“I think it’s great because I get to give back to the sport that has given me so much,” says Rico Roman, who is here competing for the San Antonio Rampage.
“These guys really look up to us as National Team players and Paralympians, so for me to sign some autographs and take a few pictures hopefully will inspire them to be the best that they can be. I really get fired up from seeing the youth players and the smiles on their faces. I love it.”
As O’Connor is proud to point out, these festivals are more than just another hockey tournament or a showcase of skills. It’s a chance for every player, whether they are competing in a sled, a special hockey game or as a member of an amputee team to say loud and proud that they too are hockey players just like their able-bodied brethren.
And what these Paralympians represent is the possibility that there are opportunities to be a part of something bigger if they continue to work hard and believe in themselves.
“It’s like pulling on that USA jersey,” says Kip St. Germaine, a three-time Paralympian who is coaching the UNH Wildcats adult team.
“It’s an honor and a responsibility that you can’t take lightly. It’s one thing to make the Paralympic Team and win the gold medal, but there are other responsibilities that come outside of the ice … to get kids enthused and involved because they’re the future.”
To their credit, every member of the gold-medal team understands that and relishes the opportunity to serve as an example for the next generation of disabled athlete.
“It’s awesome to be that kind of role model for these kids,” says Josh Sweeney, who scored the winning goal in the gold-medal game against Russia.
“That’s why I try to do the best I can to let them know that it’s possible for them, and it’s not something that they can’t do if they get to work.”
No one has ever said that officiating, and especially officiating ice hockey, was easy. Rule knowledge, communication skills, fitness, skating and a natural presence are just some of the skills necessary to be a successful official. Some possess more of these skills and those are the officials who advance to higher levels. But regardless of the level achieved or the skill set the official possesses, the one quality that should be equal among every official is a high level of integrity.
The national official staff members, along with our volunteer referees-in-chief and local supervisors, have heard growing concerns over a decreasing level of integrity among our youth hockey officials. It’s sometimes said that no one is holding them accountable. A portion of this perception is likely a typical “blame the officials” mentality, but some anecdotal evidence suggests there is also some merit to this concern. That’s alarming to USA Hockey, as it affects the credibility of our entire program, along with every member it represents. The blunt truth is this: even one official who isn’t on the up and up can and will damage the credibility of all officials who do take pride in the integrity of their work.
Whether we like it or not, officials are under a microscope, and by the nature of the business, are held to a very high standard. When we signed up for this officiating gig, we committed ourselves to represent the game of hockey, USA Hockey, our local group of officials and ourselves as people of integrity who accept the responsibility and guardianship of enforcing the rules in a fair and consistent manner. Most importantly, we must remember that the game is bigger than all of us and that the game itself is what we serve. Those who lose sight of that not only compromise the competitive fairness of the games, they also make life more difficult for all of the officials by damaging the credibility of the officiating community.
An example of this type of unacceptable behavior occurred last season. A Level 2 adult official tended to work his games with a chip on his shoulder. He often created confrontation with coaches, alienated his younger partners with inaccurate advice and disregarded their help in attempting to get some calls and rule applications right. Even though the help they were providing was correct, he chose to maintain his incorrect position that affected the outcome of several games. He also tended to identify certain players and single them out for various infractions and/or on-ice lectures as a means of emphasizing his authority.
Once the trends were identified, concerns were voiced by several parents and coaches to the local assigner and supervisor, who acknowledged they had never seen the official’s work, but would keep throwing him out there working the same teams and levels that had expressed concerns regarding his attitude. This included intentionally assigning him a playoff game involving the coach who was the most vocal in expressing concerns. This official was then instructed to “throw the coach out if he says anything.”
That playoff game went without a hitch – a tight 2-1 game with a couple of close off-side plays and maybe an icing or two missed. In the post-game dressing room, the official in question, in the presence of his partners and the officials scheduled to work the next game, said, “It’s always a great day when you can make one or both of the coaches mad. It’s too bad the white team coach didn’t want to play along today.” The partners sat there in silence until finally a 12-year-old Level 1 official who was working the next game said, “I don’t think that’s right. We’re not supposed to bait coaches.”
The official got dressed quickly and left the room without saying another word. Kind of ironic that it was the innocent 12-year-old that seemed to “get it” and instill a sense of accountability among those in the room. Imagine how any 12-year-old player feels on the ice when they see the official(s) displaying an attitude that is simply not to the standard the game deserves. And yes, more often than not, they can see through those who do not have the level of integrity expected.
Fortunately, these types of officials are few and far between. But they do exist and to simply stick our heads in the sand and not address the concern is irresponsible. Each of us, as officials, has an obligation to behave in a professional manner at all times and take our role seriously. We have made a commitment to approach each game with the understanding that the game is about the players and we should be invisible until the players require us to appear as a result of infractions that occur. Respect is a two-way street and simply putting on the sweater with the USA Hockey crest suggests respect is warranted, but only if supported by your actions.
USA Hockey has an obligation to create a non-threatening environment that promotes respect for officials and an opportunity for officials to improve through education and evaluation. USA Hockey does this through playing rules, points of emphasis, zero tolerance policies and comprehensive education programs for officials, coaches, parents and players.
In return, the game expects USA Hockey officiating members to bring a professional image to every contest and an attitude that creates a positive environment and makes the game better. We realize everyone makes mistakes – it’s part of the game. However, laziness or unprofessional behavior is unacceptable and being creative in rule enforcement and not holding players/coaches accountable for infractions will only make the next team of officials’ jobs much more difficult and set them up for failure.
The reality is that the game official must always hold themselves to the highest level of integrity and behavior both on and off the ice. Maybe that’s fair, or maybe not, but it is the expectation we are required to meet.
As we head into the 2015-16 season, ask yourself if you are willing to meet that expectation. If the answer is yes, welcome back and we look forward to a great season.