Thursday, May 31, 2007

Hockey officials finally get a break

Young officials are finally on the same page as young players with respect to furthering their on-ice career. Hockey Canada announced in April that officials will receive scholarship money to help them officiate and further their education at the same time.

The Ken Stiles Officiating Scholarship Awards were named for the late Ken Stiles, who was a president of the Flames Project 75, an integral funding initiative that has benefited Hockey Canada and hockey development for a number of years. Ken Stiles was a farmer, rancher, and successful businessman. He was a key advocate of the junior hockey scholarship programs and worked tirelessly on behalf of Hockey Canada to ensure the going concern of these programs.

The Ken Stiles scholarships will be awarded annually to those who participate in Hockey Canada’s Officiating Program of Excellence. The money will help offset the costs of education to some of Canada’s best and brightest. For 2007, six individuals received $1,000 each, while one received $5,000.

This is a program long overdue. “It really is,” admits Hockey Canada President Bob Nicholson. “We put a lot of emphasis on the player, which we should have. Now, it’s just great that we’re doing something on the educational side for officials. Hopefully, this will grow. Hopefully, we’ll be able to build more and more scholarships and continue to attract new officials to the game.”

The turnover for officials in Canada is huge. A lot of young officials initially get involved to make a little extra money and score a little extra ice time. But in order to attract more officials at the younger age level, such as 17, 18, and 19, Hockey Canada is looking at finding a better way to entice those who have played hockey all their lives to look at officiating as an option to further a career.

The respect factor likely plays a huge role in why someone doesn’t look to officiating. Hockey Canada has also implemented parenting programs to help erase some of that negativity that can sometimes enter a rink.

“It’s all about trying to create a positive atmosphere in arenas in this country,” adds Nicholson. “I think overall, we do a very good job. We certainly still have situations that continue to occur that is a concern. But if we work all the groups together, coaches, players, officials, parents, we can make it a place that everyone wants to be.”

Reagan Vetter is a Saskatoon official and the recipient of the $5,000 scholarship – a gift that will tremendously help offset the costs of growing tuitions.

“To get acknowledgement as an official, to receive a scholarship of this magnitude is a step in the right direction. Not to say that officials have been unrecognized for so long. We recognize the hockey players first, what they go through, and the scrutiny they go through. But we have to keep ourselves in just as tip top a shape, always be a step ahead, be prepared mentally. This isn’t necessarily a day job for all of us. It’s a secondary job, something we obviously enjoy doing.”

According to Paul Carson, Hockey Canada Director, Development, the caliber of Canadian officials is second to none throughout the world.

“We really recognize that our officials work hard to achieve that standard. But we also believe that players, former players that gravitate towards officiating, or even youngsters who start officiating at a young age and stay in it should be able to see some benefits long-term, not just in terms of professional opportunities or paid opportunities, but in terms of recognition for their commitment both academically and athletically.”

The application process is specific to those enrolled in Hockey Canada’s Officiating Program of Excellence. This year’s award pool was from 180 possible officials over a four-year period. Each year, Hockey Canada will look at a new set of 45 officials.

The officials either go to their referee-in-chief in their own branch or contact Hockey Canada for an application package. Their academic performance is also considered, so they must include transcripts. The applications are then scrutinized and the most deserving recipients are then chosen.

Carson sees how key this will be for recruitment. “I believe that you first have to address who the officials are. Establish an understanding, that a young man like Reagan Vetter is a terrific young person to be a role model for all participants. If we have the ability to put their profile front and center, then people can see what development opportunities there are for individual officials. Maybe they’ll have a better understanding of the relationship that exists between coaches and officials, players and officials, parents and officials. My hope is we move in a direction where people see the positive things that we do in all aspects of our sport that is having a tremendous impact on the growth of our game.”

Bridging the gap and humanizing football officials

Jim Daley hasn’t always seen eye to eye when it comes to officiating. But the former Canadian Football League head coach has been touring the country in his new role (CFL Senior Advisor Officiating and Football Operations) alongside the CFL Director of Officiating George Black. It’s a new open-door policy the league has instigated to dispel the “we/they” aspect of team football personnel and officials. Daley and Black are meeting with every team’s coaches and media to talk about the officials’ reality compared to coaches’ expectations, and to simplify the rules of the game and provide clarity on new rules going into effect for the 2007 CFL season.

It all boils down to respect and wearing each others’ cleats.

“It’s a whole different world on the other side,” admits Daley. His first role of responsibility is to change the rulebook wording. A cleanly worded explanation erases shades of grey and makes it easier for coaches to coach their players not to get a flag.

One of the exercises Daley and Black have used in their meetings is to show a video of a play and let the coaches be the official. It’s been a proactive approach that has helped teams understand the officials’ role better and eliminate confusion on some of the calls.

A lot has changed in the game, mainly the use of a seven-man crew. The same type of crew is being used at the elite amateur levels to ensure a smoother transition for those officials fortunate enough to make the transition to pro. The extra man allows them to see the field better. The seven-man crew consists of referee, head linesman, umpire, line judge, side judge, field judge, and back judge.

Every year on the eve of pre-season, officials are put through a fitness test and a mechanics exam. They’re shown a live kick-off play to review the responsibilities. Then they assess the actual play to see if the crew did their job.

“We would be critically concerned about an official that didn’t get 90 percent,” says Black.

Making it as an official doesn’t mean you get to stay in the league and rest on your laurels. There is an evaluation process for officials. The checklist is:

Signals and communications
Penalty calls
“No calls”
Possession plays
Ball spotting
Position and coverage
Application of rules and penalties

Becoming a CFL official isn’t, by any stretch, all glitter and glamour. They only make between $550 and $850 per game, plus per diem, and there is only one game a week. It’s not a full-time job. They do it purely for the love of the game, but along with the job is constant, eternal abuse and second-guessing by fans, coaches, players, and media.

Potential prospects are scouted in the elite amateur ranks, mainly CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport). There are four levels of certification and the biggest challenge is attracting younger individuals into the position. About 14 new officials were brought into the league in the last two seasons. The jump to pro is perhaps higher than it is for a player.

One of the more interesting statistics is that officials don’t come out of the football playing level. Although a former player would help bridge the gap between the officials association and league personnel a lot faster and perhaps entice new recruits.

Every year, the turnover of league coaches presents a new challenge to officials. It means starting over on the education process. So Daley and Black will likely keep taking their show on the road in years to come.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Hockey's Big Fat Lie

Surely, in Canada, we haven't cured our healthcare waiting lists, eradicated poverty, successfully erased illiteracy by 100 percent, wiped out all of our crime statistics, brought in thousands of needed doctors, and single-handedly wiped out and cured terrorism and warfare in Afghanistan. You'd think there might be more pressing issues to waste dollars and time on than forcing Hockey Canada boss Bob Nicholson to appear in front of a Canadian Language Committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, like some 12-year-old prankster being sent to the principal's office for shooting spitballs at the ceiling in the boys' bathroom through the cartridge of a Bic pen. But then again, maybe the Members of Parliament are trying to divert attention from the real issues -- and particularly the current accusations of prisoner abuse in Afghanistan, much like our U.S. politicians try to skirt real issues by focusing on gay marriage.

Our new Canadian hero is Bob Nicholson. He grudgingly walked down the corridor to face his accusers, on trial for being human. He was there to defend Team Canada's decision to name Phoenix Coyotes' RW Shane Doan their captain for the 2007 World Men's Championship in Russia. Impassioned, near tears, you could tell he was not going to fold and cave. Nicholson gave these so called leaders a tongue lashing.

"You talk to everyone, I mean EVERYONE, who put on a jersey and played with Shane Doan." "They're not supposed to be playing for the name on the back of the jersey. They play for the name on the front of the jersey, and some of them are now questioning why."

Shane Doan is accused of verbalizing a racial slur against French people some 18 months ago, to which he was cleared by the NHL after an investigation. (And yes, it was a politician that brought the issue forward then.) Yesterday, Doan said it was the people who don't know him who are insisting he did it, and the ones that know him are the ones defending him. The political outrage began when some of them took issue to Doan being named the captain.

NDP "leader" Jack Layton later left Doan a voice mail wishing him well but didn't outright apologize. Doan's response was he appreciated the call because they're (politicians) so busy. But sadly, the issue isn't confined to just one political party. Liberals and Conservatives have also weighed in.

Former NHL goalie great Ken Dryden, now a Liberal MP himself, asked what right the government had to decide who is a good captain or not for Team Canada. But that was as far as his support would allow himself to go. He defended his political colleagues' right to their opinion.

Ironically, a similar controvery was put to rest Wednesday when clothing designer Tommy Hilfiger was asked to appear on Oprah, so they could both once and for all dispel the (what Oprah called) big fat lie that Hilfiger appeared on Oprah years ago and said he didn't make his clothes for black people to wear. The fodder had since included Asians and Jews in the mix. Of course, Hilfiger had never appeared on Oprah until Wednesday and never said anything like that to anyone, let alone on a show he had never appeared on. Contrary to how he had been portrayed, he has single-handedly helped raise over $75 million for a Martin Luther King memorial.

So the big fat lie that seems to be permeating Shane Doan's perfect persona is just that. Nicholson alluded that maybe someone did say it, but he is dead sure it wasn't Doan.

But anyone who has ever encountered Shane Doan in the flesh is shaking their head in disbelief. If there was ever a man you'd want to marry your daughter...