As we’ve seen, the statistics show one side of the story; there is also the visual, on-ice and off-ice performance and administration which is another chapter for discussion.

Panning the officials’ point blank is a cop out. Conversely, the defence of “don’t judge until you’ve worn the bands” is also a cop out to an extent, although it provides a far better perspective to the rigors of the job. There is plenty of room for constructive criticism in between, the key word being constructive.

A Day in the Life of…

As someone who wears the stripes (admittedly not very well at times) the harsh reality is that officiating hockey in Australia is, for the most part, a voluntary job even at the AIHL level. Many critics champion the line of “they’re the only ones that get paid” but to be brutally honest, $15 for a PeeWee game which, inclusive of transit, can take up 2 hours of one’s free time on a Saturday afternoon, is not much of an incentive to attract massive numbers to the stripes. Furthermore, taking into account the plethora of abuse and scrutiny, it’s largely the love of the game that keeps many, if not most, doing the job.

Apart from the minimum obligatory 8 hour course and take home exam at the start of the season, there currently exists minimal to no support in terms of further and ongoing training for officials, save for a few random on ice skating sessions during the year. A mentoring system was introduced earlier in the year but this is greatly dependent on the availability and competency of other officials to be able to accurately assess their peers. However, if the assessor isn’t on point, then the assessee will likely not be either.

Making Time to Talk

One of the issues that is often brought up is that of communication, or lack thereof. A referee’s ability to communicate is often the difference between a smooth game or chaos. One of the grievances bought forward by players and coaching staff around the AIHL is that some officials do not communicate well to players and coaches, which often leads to confusion and mayhem later in the game.

Communication also doesn’t just mean being able to explain your decision, it’s also being approachable and interactive to players and coaching staff. There is currently little to no support or training given to officials on how to develop this fundamental and essential skill. The best referees are often not the most knowledgeable ones, they’re the best communicators.

Further, the decision to remove the microphones from officials earlier in the year without any formal notice has made it difficult for the fans, and in the commentary box, to make sense of what is transpiring on the ice at times, particularly when a slew of penalties have been issued. To date, ATC Productions and Fox Sports has not received any official communication from IHA as to why the decision to remove the microphones was implemented. This is greatly disappointing and came at a time when the officials made one of the best decisions in the AIHL of the year, during the Melbourne derby and the now famous disallowed goal call.

Photo by Debra Jean Photography, Production by Peter Lambert

Photo by Debra Jean Photography, Production by Peter Lambert

Culture Club

There also needs to be a culture change, particularly with regard to interpretation and application of the rules in the AIHL. Consistently this season we have seen clean, hard checks punished mercilessly and incorrectly, resulting in suspensions and either ensuing chaos on the ice, or the momentum taken out of the game. Or, both. The apparent culture and perception among some officials of “hard physical contact = someone must pay dearly in the penalty box” needs to change. It’s damaging the product for the players and fans and going beyond the flexibility and scope of the rule book.

The always divisive issue of fighting also needs to be looked at by the league. Love it or hate it, it has its place in the game and also serves as an important pressure release valve. When the game becomes chippy, a fight can often settle things down and end the scrappyness which, as the statistics have shown, often leads to the high number of misconducts and roughing penalties being handed out. Surely a middle ground can be arrived at where fighting in the league is allowed on a restricted basis, without suspension at least. The fans love it, the players and coaches are for it, the casual fan wants it. I’m not for turning the league into a gongshow by any means, no-one wants to see that. However, no-one wants to continue to see the penalty parades and 15 minute conversations while penalties are sorted out. The high incidents of roughings and misconducts shown the stats, are often a direct result of this. The casual fan turning on Fox Sports on Thursday and seeing this increasingly regular occurrence is easily dissuaded.

The majority of players and coaches, and indeed officials, that I have spoken to in the AIHL just want to be part of a good product. The standard of officiating in some areas is currently adversely affecting the product and needs to be addressed in a constructive way.

Where to from here?

It is my personal opinion that it is time the AIHL moved away from the IIHF rule book and went on its own. This presents several sub issues. The most obvious one being the time and cost to redraft your own rule book and have it legally certified before the league. Having all the teams, players, officials and administration agree on the rule changes is no mean feat but it can be done. Then, there is the issue of re-accreditation of officials against the new rule book, but if Hockey Canada and the NHL can co-exist, so can the AIHL/IIHF. We’re not playing at the Olympics, this is the AIHL.

The main problem with the IIHF rule book and its application to the AIHL is that there is no middle ground for a lot of penalties, as well as their interpretation. In many cases, its two minutes or a five minute major, plus a game misconduct, plus a two game suspension. The five minute major + GM can be absolutely lethal to a game and a team as we have seen several times before. The ten minute misconduct is also too often issued when there would be definite scope for a two minute unsportsmanlike, a fact backed up by the statistics. In many instances, it does little to prevent any escalation of conflict, and often works against itself.

Most importantly, there also needs more ongoing regular training, just like the players, and support available for the officials. Fitness standards is also another area of concern to some. IIHF tournaments require officials to be able to skate and maintain certain fitness levels. Fitness is vital and can impact decisions late in the game when fatigue sets in and positioning becomes difficult, particularly if the league continues to use the 3 man system over the 4 man system; another vigorous point of discussion.

Finally, there is also the option of import referees. If the league can import players, it can also import officials. Obviously the finances are issue #1, but, this would be of enormous benefit to the league and the local associations, as the wisdom and mentoring passed on by highly experienced international officials would be invaluable. It would also open the door for many local officials to perhaps develop their game overseas and bring that experience back here.

Ultimately, if this issue is to be addressed properly then the action must come from the teams themselves. The league cannot act without consent from the teams and they owe it to themselves and their fans. It is also, sadly, an issue that prevents quality imports from returning to the league who otherwise love their time playing in Australia.

Aside from the other ‘R’ word, rinks (no, not Ric), the growth of this league rests on it.

Part 1 available here…