What’s it like to be a UK hockey official?

Without officials there would be no competitive ice hockey and that’s especially relevant in the UK, where the game that I love is very much a minority sport.

Accordingly, those charged with keeping order on the ice are part-time and hold occupations like the rest of us.
Thanks to the varied world that is Twitter I’ve met some interesting people I would not have necessarily done otherwise and one of those is Nick Hayman.
Currently retraining as a teacher after working backstage in theatre, in his spare time Nick is an official for the English Ice Hockey Association and about to embark on his third season donning the black and white stripes.

I spoke with him recently about what it’s like to be a hockey referee in the UK and the challenges faced.

So I suppose the obvious first question is how did you get into ice hockey officiating?

Actually, in the UK the question has to be how I got into ice hockey in the first place – no TV coverage, no national press, it’s a minor sport in the truest sense of the word.

I fell into hockey when a rink was built in my hometown (Guildford, about an hour’s drive from London) in 1993 – I was 14 years old. I started watching the semi-pro senior team, & became hooked on the game. When a minor hockey club was formed later that year, I joined and was a member of the Under-16 team for their inaugural season. I went on to play one more season before academic commitments (not to mention lack of ability) made continuing impractical.

I then basically forgot about hockey for many years – my parents eventually threw out all my playing kit & the only time my skates came out of the closet was to take my nephews skating once or twice. I went to university in a town without a rink, & then spent a decade working as a stage manager in theatre and opera, which meant no evenings or weekends to watch hockey, let alone play.

I got into officiating because in 2012 I made a decision to try to get more balance in my life – working in theatre is all-consuming, and I felt I was becoming very one-dimensional. I was looking for things that I could fit around my schedule, & was also inspired by the London 2012 Olympics with their emphasis on youth sport as a legacy. I remembered how much I had loved hockey as a teenager; being able to support the game at a youth level as an official felt like an opportunity to give something back.

Can you explain to those reading the level you officiate at and the set-up involved?

I’m an on-ice official for the English Ice Hockey Association, which administers the sport at all levels in England & Wales from youth hockey to our second-tier pro league. Unlike Canadian minor hockey with its multitude of levels (Rep, AA, AAA etc), there is only one level of youth hockey in the UK; however each league has two divisions, with the stronger clubs in Division 1 & the weaker clubs, plus the stronger clubs’ B teams if they have them, in Division 2.

For many years our youth hockey age groups were Under-18, Under-16, Under-14 & Under-12, with an cross-ice Under-9 league appearing more recently. For the 2015/16 season, they are U20, U18, U15, U13 & U11, with the cross-ice U9 games continuing as before. This was motivated mainly by an IIHF requirement that we run a domestic U20 league in order to continue participating in IIHF tournaments at that age-group.

Although I primarily officiate minor hockey, the pool of on-ice officials is relatively small, & many officials who work senior pro games will also work a junior fixture earlier in the day. Often the linesmen for the senior game will referee the junior fixture, for example.

How easy is the balance between work and officiating, and just how much travelling is involved for someone at your level?

In the UK, with very few exceptions, games take place on the weekend; so someone with a Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5 job would have very little in the way of conflicts between work & officiating. While I was working in the theatre industry, my work involved a lot of travel, and (obviously) a lot of evening and weekend work. Moving into education has meant that I am in one place & only work Monday to Friday, at least in theory; so I am finding it much easier to balance work and officiating now.
Leagues are organised geographically: southern England & Wales play in one league, and midland & northern England in another. As this is a small country, that keeps the travel time to a maximum of a couple of hours, and the majority of games involve maybe 60-90 minutes’ drive for me.

During a normal week how many games would you be asked to officiate in?

Because hockey is such a minor sport here, there are relatively few games: throughout the whole of England & Wales, across all levels, from the youngest minor hockey players to the second-tier pro league, there are perhaps 100 games, in total, each weekend.

With only around 200 registered officials to cover those games, your chances of being allocated to a game are pretty high. But the logistics of travel mean that you only do one or two games in a day – with each rink in a different city, and almost all games taking place in the afternoon and evening, it’s just not feasible to do more than that.

Given my level of experience, I would not yet be considered for senior games except in an emergency; so I anticipate that in 2015/16 I will probably work between one and four games per weekend – where possible, minor hockey clubs will run several age group games back-to-back with the same officiating crew to save on our travel costs.

You’re a part time official  in a minority sport. Does the compensation for doing this just cover your costs and therefore this is very much a labour of love?

In terms of game fees, the amounts are pretty tiny – this weekend I was paid £14 ($28 CAD) for lining an U15 game, and the rate only rises by a few pounds at the older age-groups. Referee game fees are similarly low. Mileage is paid at 45p ($0.90 CAD) per mile, which means that a lot of the money I earn from hockey comes from the travel expenses; but apart from the odd scheduling blip where I get sent on a 150-mile round-trip because all the local refs are already working other games, I wouldn’t expect to clear more than £70 ($140 CAD) in a weekend – which represents a time commitment of around 12-14 hours if you include game prep & travel, as well as the time actually spent on the ice.

Also it’s worth North American readers bearing in mind how much more expensive fuel is here than it is over there! (Current UK prices are around £1.10 per litre)

Looking at this in purely financial terms, I am certainly not doing much more than breaking even; but then it isn’t really a financial proposition for me. I get to do something that gives me exercise, a challenge & a real sense of enjoyment; at the same time, kids are getting to play the game they love, they’re having fun too, and I am doing something tangible to help grow the game I love.

We hear stories about officials having to deal with abuse in junior hockey over in North America and that would be the same for many football (soccer) referee’s in the UK.
Does that carry over into UK hockey or is it a much more pleasant experience?

It is well known that referees in youth soccer here come in for appalling amounts of abuse, verbal and occasionally physical. That hasn’t been my experience of youth hockey, and talking to colleagues it doesn’t seem to be the experience of other minor hockey officials here either.

I think there are a lot of factors behind this. One is that hockey costs, especially if you have several kids playing. A rough estimate for minor hockey expenditure per child in the UK would be £1500 ($3000 CAD) per season – which is tiny by comparison to the amounts Canadian parents put into their children’s’ minor hockey. But when you consider that the most popular sports here require almost no equipment to play, it does mean that whether a child gets to play hockey or not in the first place, can certainly be decided by family income.

On the other hand, that’s often the case in North America too, so why the discrepancy? Some of it’s to do with the lack of a hockey culture here – the parents have generally not played the sport themselves, and certainly didn’t have dreams of lifting the Stanley Cup one day, therefore they’re not trying to live those dreams vicariously through their children.

However, I suspect that the real answer is a pretty simple one, and one that explains why the same unfortunate behaviour occurs on soccer touchlines here as in the stands at rinks over there: money. A player in English soccer’s Premier League can earn money that makes NHL compensation look stingy. But as a hockey parent in the UK, your child is not going to get drafted, or earn a college scholarship (university sport works on an entirely different basis here anyway).

If they’re talented and dedicated enough to graduate to playing in our second- or third-tier senior leagues, they will probably earn around £200 ($400 CAD) per week. The most talented might end up in our top tier, where they could earn three times that – which is still only just about enough to even think about raising a family on.

I do think that lack of the promise of riches or college tuitions keeps a lid on parental behaviour. Without that, kids get to play for enjoyment, not with one eye (usually their parents‘ rather than their own) on a career or an education.

How much are you critiqued through the season by the EIHA and are you given regular performance feedback?

As a minor sport, there is not a lot of money in hockey; even at the national level, almost all of those involved in administering the sport are doing so in their spare time around day jobs. The whole of British hockey is built on people putting huge amounts of their time and passion into the game – whether it’s keeping track of stats, being a scorekeeper or penalty-box attendant, selling 50/50 raffle tickets on game nights, or whatever.

That’s very inspiring, but it does mean that some things simply can’t be done in a top-down manner, because the people at the top only have a limited amount of time at their disposal. So the stuff which needs to be done in that way – game allocations for officials, for example, or player registrations – gets done, and things which are less critical to the running of the sport don’t.

We have a new Referee In Chief this season, and one of his aims is to overhaul the system of formal assessment for officials. In the meantime, though, most of the assessment & feedback you receive as an on-ice official comes from your colleagues. No-one would argue that more formal assessment isn’t a good thing, but there’s also a lot to be said for an informal system where the people working the game with you will give you feedback on your performance, and you on theirs.

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Do you have any memorable or even better, funny moments, that you’re allowed to share?

1) Fairly early on in my career, working a two-man system with a more experienced colleague, I skated to centre-ice to take the opening face-off of the second period, raised my whistle-hand to my mouth, and realised that the whistle was where I had left it, in the dressing room. That’s the sort of mistake you only make once…

2) Last season I was sent to a rink I had not visited before, and got very lost trying to find it – so lost that I only arrived a few minutes before the game was due to begin. As I had been driving for a couple of hours whilst taking on fluid, I badly needed to go to the bathroom; but since I barely had time to get into my equipment I had to wait until the end of the first period, when I hustled off the ice to answer the call of nature.
Unfortunately, minor hockey games usually dispense with an ice cut between periods, and only take a 3 minute break; which is not long enough to take off the equipment, do the necessary, put the gear back on & get back on the ice. I emerged from the bathroom to find both teams already out on the ice and the referee signalling a delay of game penalty at me…

What would you say are the best things about being an ice hockey official?

A major attraction for me is that it gives me an opportunity to give something back to the sport I love. I want the game in the UK to grow, and in particular for young British players to make it to our top-tier leagues and even beyond. That won’t happen without them being given the opportunity to play; so being an official means I make a tangible contribution to that happening.

But it’s not all altruism; I get a lot out of officiating too. I get to do something which challenges me physically & mentally, and if I have a good game there is a sense of real satisfaction. Officiating gives me a reason to stay healthy, eat right & maintain fitness, all things that a demanding job can stop you doing.

There’s also a lot to be said for doing something which forces you to concentrate hard for several hours. Whatever has been going on in my life during the week, I have to leave it in the officials’ room, because once you drop that puck, the only way you can do your job is to focus completely on what’s happening, moment to moment. That doesn’t sound relaxing, but in a world where we very seldom get to concentrate on anything to the exclusion of everything else, it’s very liberating.

Do you have aspirations to climb the ladder and officiate at the highest level you can?

This is something which has actually changed since I started officiating. When I began working hockey games, I was still a theatre stage manager, which meant a lot of travel, and working most evenings & weekends; so I was resigned to only being able to work games when my schedule allowed it.

With the move into education, I am now in one place, and don’t work weekends, which means I can go from working a game or two a month, to working several each weekend. It’s very hard to improve if you go for weeks between games, because you don’t get a chance to put what you learnt on the ice into practice while it’s still fresh in your mind. If you have another game the following day, you can build on it, and you can’t really fail to improve.

Part of me would like to see how far I can go in officiating, whether I can make it to our Senior leagues. It would certainly be nice to know that I could cope at that level. However, I’m also realistic about the fact that I started officiating relatively late (I worked my first game at the age of 34), and just as I found that 14 was too late to start playing if I wanted to reach a high level, I have to be realistic about how long I could keep up with the higher levels of the game.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to improve as much as I can; the Under-11 teams need (and deserve) competent officials as much as the pros do. I want to be the best official I can be, otherwise there really isn’t any point in my being there.

Another thing about being that bit older is that things like family need to be factored in. After a decade in an industry with very unsociable hours, I’ve no intention of swapping one all-consuming lifestyle for another. I want to be able to balance my life, and spending my weekends chasing round the UK to the exclusion of spending time with my loved ones isn’t balance.

So I am not looking to break into officiating in our top-tier Elite league or get my IIHF licence. What I am interested in doing is continuing to learn & develop as an official. I’d like to work towards refereeing as well as being a linesman. I’d be very interested in getting involved in the training and development of new officials, once I have enough experience under my belt to not be considered one myself.

Life gets in the way of a lot of things, and I don’t know how long my knees or my back are going to hold up. But even if they do, the day I look at the clock in the last couple of minutes of a game and don’t find myself thinking “I don’t want this to be over” is the day it’ll be time to hang up my skates.

A huge thank you to Nick for the time and effort he put into this interview.

If you’d like to follow Nick Hayman on Twitter you can do so at @NickHaymanSM

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