Digging Deeper: Behind the Whistle

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Chippewa Valley (WQOW) – Heckling the referees or umpires at sporting events has always been a part of the game. But recently, hockey organizations across the country have seen a sharp decline in the number of officials.

Gracen Garlie, Youth Hockey Official

Referees of all ages are targets for coaches, parents and fans to air their grievances, but many believe it’s getting worse.

For former athletes, officiating is a way to stay involved in the game. “I like being on the ice, it clears my mind,” said Gracen Garlie, a second year USA Hockey Official.

But some now say their former sanctuary has turned into a battleground.

“Hey you, like child come here. Hey you younger one, girl with the hair, come here,” Garlie said these were just some of the ways coaches have summoned her.

The sounds of the game have changed. Criticism towards young officials now echoes through Western Wisconsin rinks.

“There’s been parents in the stands that have singled me out because I have long hair, or I’m a girl,” said Garlie. “Saying ‘You suck. Blow your whistle, do you know how to ref?’ Like, just stuff targeting specifically me.”

Grady Richartz, USA Hockey Officials Instructor & Referee

USA Hockey Instructor and Official Grady Richartz told News 18  verbal abuse from beyond the glass has the number of new referees in a steady decline. “Anywhere between a quarter and a third of first year officials do not return the following year,” Richartz said.

He also said this new culture is forcing the veteran police of the game to end their careers early.

“This year I’ve talked to two veteran officials that are not going to do youth hockey after this season for that very reason.”

Eau Claire Bantam A vs. Stevens Point Bantam A at Hobbs Ice Arena in Eau Claire

It’s hard enough for players to go from shooting the puck, to dropping pucks, to learning the rules of the game. And when everyone in the rink is yelling at you, it’s easy to miss a call.

“Officiating is the only profession that people expect you to be perfect the first time you do that job,” Richartz said. “And that’s unrealistic. So if coaches, or the parents, or the players have that expectation of a 13 or 14 year old new official, they’re going to be severely disappointed.”

It’s that expectation of perfection that may persuade young refs to hang up their skates. “I never wanted to quit, but I will say I have not wanted to do a specific game because of a coach,” Garlie said.

New officials are forced to grow thick skin, but overtime the constant criticism can grow thin. “There are times when even I don’t want to go on the ice because I know that the coaches or the fan base are going to react in a negative way,” said Richartz.

Dave Bestul mentoring Gracen Garlie at Hobbs Ice Arena in Eau Claire.

Instructors spend time training young officials on and off the ice, on how to deal with unruly fans. “You know, we start talking about scenarios that might happen and how to react or how to handle that situation,” said Richartz. “Because the first time it happens you want to be prepared as much as you can.”

Garlie said it’s important to point out that not every situation is a bad situation.

“Some coaches I can really connect with because we help each other out. I like those coaches a lot. Like, those coaches should stick around,” said Garlie.

Richartz told News 18 you can help fix the problem by remembering, officials are someone else’s kids, it’s just a game and no one is perfect.

While the number of players in Western Wisconsin continues to grow, so will the need for more officials. Instructors said they will continue recruiting efforts across the Chippewa Valley to keep kids on the ice.

If braving the criticism and becoming an officer of the game is something you might be interested in, the links below can help you get started.


Justin Esterly

Justin Esterly

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