The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a shortage of referees for youth hockey games across Canada, according to a senior hockey official.
After lockdowns went into place last year, the 2020-21 hockey season was left hanging by a thread in most parts of the country.
While restrictions have been lifted recently, allowing some youth leagues to start again, hockey administrators say a shortage of referees is causing some games to be cancelled.
Dan Hanoomansingh, manager of officiating with Hockey Canada, says referees haven't returned to games with the same quickness or intensity that players have.
"Without games, what we saw was officials not registering with their member organizations across the country," he said.
Hanoomansingh says B.C. has seen a 30 per cent drop in the number of registered referees compared to last season.
While a significant amount, he says provinces like Quebec and Ontario have seen even more stark drops of over 50 per cent.
"As COVID has come through, like we've seen with people in really any occupation or industry, a lot of people have made changes to their lives," he said.
"Now that hockey has returned, people are really asking themselves, 'Do I have that extra time each week to officiate?' And in a lot of cases so far, at least, that answer has been no."
Refs need certification yearly
Hanoomansingh says the problem is especially concentrated in the U18 and junior (U20) divisions, since those divisions need more experienced referees to deal with higher levels of play.
Jim Humphrey, the president of the Vancouver Island Amateur Hockey Association, says the referee shortages have caused three games to be called off in the region.
While abuse is also a factor behind hockey referees leaving the profession, Hanoomansingh says that is a problem seen more often with younger referees, with shouting adults in the stands. The current referee crunch, according to Hockey Canada, is primarily due to more experienced officials leaving the sport.
For its part, B.C. Hockey is waiving or reducing certification fees to entice more referees to return to the game. Hockey officials have to be certified yearly in the province.
Hanoomansingh says hockey associations across the country have received "droves" of applications from aspiring referees, but the challenge now is to ensure that there is a positive career pathway for them.
"That's a huge part of the equation that we know for older, more experienced officials," he said. "They want to feel valued. They want to feel like their contribution is important."
"We need to recruit and try and make sure that we are having games played, but also that we're being careful to manage the officials that we do have and not ask too much of them."