British Columbia’s youth hockey leagues are back on the ice after a season lost to COVID-19, but minor hockey associations are now grappling with a new problem: a referee shortage.

In Maple Ridge, nearly 500 kids from across the province gathered Friday to kick off their first tournament in almost two years. Twenty-eight teams will play 72 games over four days. Due to a staffing crunch, some young referees will end up officiating as many as 15 of those matchups.

Ridge Meadows Minor Hockey Association referee in chief Alan Robbie said the asociation is short about 40 refs this year.

And the association isn’t alone in the struggle.

“Everybody’s fighting for the same pool of officials — we’ve got a lot of officials that are leaving the area to go to other associations and just picking gup ice time where they can,” Robbie said.

That lost season is one of the problems. As in the hospitality and other sectors of B.C.’s economy, some refs simply packed up and found new jobs given the unpredictable and sustained loss of income.

With B.C.’s rising minimum wage, the league is also facing tougher competition from other jobs when it comes to hiring youth.

But the bigger problem, and one predating the pandemic, may be the abuse that young referees face from hockey parents and even coaches.

“These are amateur referees. You’ve got (under 13) game going on, it’s probably a 15-, 16-year-old kid that’s refereeing the game — they’re learning at the same time as the players on the ice are. But it’s socially acceptable to yell at a ref,” Robbie said.

“If you can go work at a store and make minimum wage for four hours, it’s better than putting your skates on and being told you’re doing a bad job. Yelling at a referee for an hour and 15 minutes isn’t wiped out by saying, ‘Hey ref, good job,’ when the team wins the game.”

Ridge Meadows Minor Hockey Association general manager Jordan Emmerson said there are new rules in place to protect referees, and parents are also required to sign on to a code of conduct.

The association has also secured funding from the municipality for referee development, but Emmerson said there’s still a challenge.

“It’s widespread. It’s across different sports too,” he said.

“One of the biggest hurdles is to make sure they see a point in it. If they’re going to go and get yelled at, there’s no point. They want to enjoy their experience.”

Emmerson said the association continues to advertise positions and offer training and certification programs to try and boost numbers.

Associations are also reaching out to each other for help with staffing, particularly at higher levels.

Robbie said boosting pay would help, but attitudes will also need to change if they want to hold onto the refs they do recruit.

“Just increasing the rates isn’t going to change it,” he said.

“If the culture doesn’t change on the ice or around the rink, then referees aren’t going to come back.”

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