Seeing Eye To Eye

The Relationship Between Coaches And Refs Need Not Be An Adversarial One

I remember being assigned to mentor a young official a number of years back. We were both assigned to a 10 & Under house league game and my responsibility was to observe my 12-year-old partner and give him feedback on his performance. 

In most cases, the goal of a mentorship program is to help new officials with fundamental positioning, mechanics, signals and basic judgment. This will set the new official up for a successful season and hopefully a long career in officiating.

After meeting the young rookie, I asked him if he had worked any games yet. “No,” he replied. While this added a bit of challenge to my assignment, I wasn’t worried since our game was a very low level of competition and there should be no issues with the teams if he makes a few mistakes and learns from them.

Just before leaving the locker room I said, “Last chance to ask questions before we do this.” He paused, looked at me, and asked, “What do I need to do if I need to throw out a coach?” Now it was my turn to pause. This is his major concern right now? 

Each season roughly 8,000 new USA Hockey officials begin their careers, and each season we lose half of these members. The reasons run the spectrum from “conflicts with personal schedule” to “abuse from coaches and spectators” to “a lack of opportunity with assignments.”

While the top reason all officials quit is due to the lack of on-ice opportunities, the abuse issue continues to erode officials’ passion and enjoyment of the game.

What would plant the idea in the 12-year-old kid’s head that he might have to eject a Squirt hockey coach in his first game? Could it be comments from his parents (regardless of light-hearted intentions)? Could it be from watching his own hockey coach’s abusive behavior toward an individual whose enforcement of the playing rules stands in the way of his success on the scoreboard?

Despite what people may think, good communication between coaches and officials can be critical to the success of a game. A quick 10-second conversation allows a coach to ask for a rule interpretation, voice a concern over what opponents might be doing or give the coach an idea of what happened during an incident with multiple infractions. Additionally, it allows the official to voice concern over what the coach’s players might be doing (“#10 needs to keep his arms low during hits”) and offer a second perspective of what happened during a play.

Regardless of the reason, a few ground rules exist that help keep the conversation productive and on topic.

  1. Coaches should leave the pedestal. Most coaches stand behind the player bench, sometimes on a raised platform. This position on the bench (raised and behind a wall of players) does not set a good stage for discussion. If a coach wants to ask a question, he/she should always stand at the end of the bench so the only barrier is four inches of dasher board.

  2. Officials should approach the bench. The idea of skating to the bench is to have a one-on-one conversation with the coach. Stopping 15 feet away and yelling at him is not a practical way to discuss a call.

  3. Officials should keep emotions in check. A tough game brings emotion out in everyone. A tough call will bring emotion out in an official. However, the official should remember who violated the infraction (the player) and who is simply asking for a rule interpretation (the coach). Giving a calm explanation of what happened and what penalty is assessed allows the coach to address the player when he returns to the bench.

  4. Coaches must keep comments non-personal. Telling an official that you’re unhappy with a call is understandable (the playing rules don’t direct the officials to keep coaches happy, or tell coaches they must like every call). However, a line exists between questioning an official’s judgment and dehumanizing him publicly. Personal remarks should always be penalized.

    If the official refuses to approach the bench, the coach should take a second to consider his behavior and either send over a captain or try again at the next whistle.If the official refuses to approach the bench, the coach should take a second to consider his behavior and either send over a captain or try again at the next whistle.

  5. Officials should not approach the bench if the coach is near his/her “boiling point”. An official may have just made a difficult call. The last thing he/she wants to do is assess an additional bench minor penalty to a coach who loses control of his emotions. If the official refuses to approach the bench, the coach should take a second to consider his behavior and either send over a captain or try again at the next whistle.

  6. Mistakes must be admitted and forgotten. Officials make mistakes (there, you have it in writing). When this happens, the official must be honest, show a little humility and admit the error. The coach must be willing to understand that even the best officials make mistakes, but this does not open the door to questioning the credibility of every call during the game.

  7. Conversations should always be brief. Coaches do not want to hear long-winded explanations of calls. Officials should be very direct and brief. Additionally, a coach’s question should be just as direct. Coaches will sometimes try to use a conversation to give players on the ice extra rest. If the coach is not staying on point, it’s time to end the discussion.

In the end, my partner and I worked the game and despite making a few mistakes, he made it through with no conflict from either bench. 

With luck, his passion for the game and officiating have grown to its full potential, and with continued effort toward respect between coaches and officials, his need for ejecting coaches will diminish as he climbs the officiating ranks.


Illustrations By Darren Gygi



Who is your favorite 2023/2024 NHL Rookie?
Connor Bedard
Matthew Knies
Brock Faber
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Logan Cooley
Total votes: 3