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Referee shortages put minor hockey house leagues, tournaments at risk

The pandemic, a strong graduating class and a decline in enrolment has brought trouble for minor hockey in Flin Flon. While players are back on the ice, few referees are returning and games, tournaments and league play are on the line.
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A referee oversees a hockey game.

The pandemic, a strong graduating class and a decline in enrolment has brought trouble for minor hockey in Flin Flon. While players are back on the ice, few referees are returning and games, tournaments and league play are on the line.

Low levels of returning officials have meant problems for community hockey programs across northern Manitoba, especially in Flin Flon.

“It’s a real problem in Flin Flon and there are a couple of other communities where we’re basically rebuilding from zero,” said Harvey Bolton, regional referee coordinator for the Norman Regional Minor Hockey Association. Bolton, who has been involved in officiating hockey in some form for five decades, has never seen anything like it.

“There have been shortages, but none like this - none where we’ve lost a group like this. We’ve lost about 10 of our main officials.”

In an ordinary hockey season, Bolton says Flin Flon Minor Hockey would usually have between 17-25 officials.

“That, over the past couple years, has dropped down to under 20 - that’s from 13-year-olds to 40- or 50-year-olds,” Bolton said.

“We’re in the process of our clinics now, but I’d say our numbers are going to be down 40 per cent or more.”

COVID-19 has played a role, as has seeing an experienced group of teenage officials graduate school and either leave the area or take on new employment making them unable to step in to officiate games.

“It was kind of like a perfect storm. If you go back two years ago, we had a pretty good group of officials who were 16, 17, 18. For the most part, a number of them have graduated school and moved on. The group that was 15 or 16, they didn’t register last year and now we’re struggling to get them back. The ones who were part of that group that graduated and are still in town, they’ve taken up jobs,” said Bolton.

“A couple are going to try and register and help out when they can, but their availability is going to be limited.”

Officials who began in 2019 will be heavily relied on, even though they’ve barely had a chance to oversee any games in the past 18 months.

“The kids who started out a couple years ago, they’ve lost their development years - now they’re 16 or 17 but they’ve missed a year and a half. The timing of COVID-19, the way the numbers and ages lined up, has had an adverse effect,” Bolton said.

Registration and training can be done online on the Hockey Manitoba website through the group’s officiating program. Any interested officials can email Bolton at bolton@mymts.net.