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NEW: Unruly parents, coaches cause ref shortage in local youth hockey league

Kid practicing hockey (via John Sonderman/Flickr)

A local youth hockey association says it is being forced to cancel games over a referee shortage caused in large part by abusive parents and coaches.

The Potomac Valley Amateur Hockey Association, which covers Virginia, D.C. and Maryland, reports that it has lost 50% of its game officials from pre-coronavirus season numbers to this season. In 2018-19, it had just shy of 500 officials, and as of October, there were 276, says association president Linda Jondo.

Officials are leaving, league participants are being told, amid an uptick in abusive behavior.

“In the PVAHA, we’ve racked up more than a dozen reports of players, parents and coaches thrown out of rinks for their unprofessional conduct towards officials in the first two weeks of the season,” Jondo said in a letter to parents, coaches and players, provided to ARLnow. “This is beyond unacceptable and a direct assault on our ability to retain enough qualified/experienced officials for our leagues.”

The abuse includes parents and coaches who accuse referees of making terrible decisions and missing calls and — in at least a few cases — chase them into parking lots to berate them.

But the pandemic is also partly to blame, as some senior referees realized that having their weekend free of obligations was actually pretty nice, while others opposed mask mandates. Without the more experienced refs, the verbal abuse turns to younger referees, who often quit after a few games.

The ref shortage is widespread.

Some weekends, 40-50 games are postponed, rescheduled or canceled due to the shortage, Jondo said.  This phenomenon is happening nationwide and is playing out in football, soccer, wrestling and lacrosse, too.

In hockey, Jondo and her fellow youth league presidents noticed an uptick in unruly behavior after parents returned to the stands. When games were restricted to players and coaches, she says there was some harassment from coaches, but the atmosphere was more relaxed.

“When you’re at a 10-and-under game and you challenge an official to ‘make me leave the building’ because you’ve done nothing but harass and official for two periods… This was a seasoned official. He does college level games. And you’re challenging him and a 10-under game,” she said. “That’s how ridiculous it’s gotten — we just don’t know why.”

(The unruly behavior may ring a bell outside the sports world: as widely reported, violent outbursts and abuse of flight attendants by passengers have increased on commercial flights in the U.S.)

The group of youth hockey presidents drafted most of the wording of the letter sent by the PVAHA, based on their collective observations. Before distributing it from Massachusetts to D.C., they tailored the specifics to each league’s referee situation.

“We’re all sending the same message up and down the East Coast,” Jondo said.

And it’s still a problem, says Jondo, who spent about six hours today (Monday) going through 60 game reports, including some reports of harassment and abuse, and received two videos Sunday showing extreme behavior.

“The letter, while it’s worked, some people are not getting the message,” she said.

PVAHA started suspending out-of-control parents and coaches about five years ago, she said. And while it’s not unusual for parents or coaches to be frustrated, the behavior now is beyond the pale.

“Since we’ve come back from COVID-19 and the senior officials aren’t coming back, it’s easier to berate a teenager,” she said. “National Hockey League officials aren’t perfect, but they don’t get followed to their cars and aren’t berated.”

The referee shortage and decline in sports civility is not a new phenomenon, according to the Christian Science Monitor, which used the Potomac youth hockey association’s letter to segue into a report on these trends and possible creative solutions.

If parents ignore the letter, PVAHA may have to mull different disciplinary measures. It isn’t clear what that could look like.

“We just have to see where this goes,” Jondo said.

Photo via John Sonderman/Flickr

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