Valley ‘shorthanded’ on hockey umpires: Bad parent behavior to blame for shortage

Glenwood Springs youth hockey official Jacob Roggie in action during a recent Grizzlies game.
Ray K. Erku/Glenwood Springs Post Independent

A perfect hockey game for Hamilton “Ham” Tharp is when the whistle rarely touches his lips.

“When the players play well and the players give us a good game, it makes us want to improve,” Tharp said. “It makes us want to stay sharp.”

Tharp has refereed hockey on the West Slope for the past 30 years, and the Aspen native and president of the Glenwood Springs Youth Hockey Association simply loves the game.

Children show up with giant smiles and all they want to do is play, he said. During this time he always learns something new about himself, the game he loves or human nature.

At 60, Tharp typically referees a weekend of games after working a full week as a superintendent at Aspen’s Consolidated Sanitation Department.

“I love being on the ice with the kids,” he says.

But the joy of Western Slope hockey is facing a crisis of bad behavior from some parents, coaches and players.

“If kids don’t see officiating as a safe place to express themselves and a safe place to explore the game they love, then you nip that thing in the bud,” Tharp said.

In turn, the number of Roaring Fork Valley umpires has dwindled, and local hockey games are sometimes supervised by fewer than necessary.

With about five umpires over the age of 25 between Aspen and Glenwood Springs, the league sometimes has to import people from Vail, Steamboat Springs and Summit County.

Tharp said the league needs at least four to five additional officials to fill in the gaps.

COVID-19 is partly to blame, Tharp said. But more than that, the referees are simply exhausted.

“Coach abuse, player abuse, parent abuse – they’re just sick of it,” Tharp said.

Examples of such abuse give good reasons.

In November 2021, a disgruntled Vail parent sprayed a referee in the face with Lysol. Tharp said there were also two hockey parents at Summit who recently assaulted each other.

“No charges have been filed,” he said. “But the league has suspended both of these parents for the remainder of the season.”

Tharp said high school referee teams are paid about $62 per referee per game.

Even for young referees, one of the first questions they ask themselves when they are trained is how to safely expel an unruly coach, Tharp said.

“I don’t know about our current culture where people feel empowered and allowed to voice their inappropriate opinions about a referee trying to call a kid’s game,” he said. “But that’s kind of where we are.”

“Culture Change”

TK Kwiatkowski sat in a back room behind racks on skate rental racks at Glenwood Springs Ice Rink as he began to contemplate the worst-case scenario.

“You lose the officials, you lose the games and hockey could die out,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to do it, but it might. So the culture change of trying to reduce abuse by public officials is an important part of that. »

A young girls’ hockey game just ended, and before the Zamboni started clearing the ice for the next fight, the two teams lined up at center ice and shook hands with cheerful smiles on their faces.

As executive director of the Glenwood Springs Youth Hockey Association, Kwiatkowski’s responsibility is to ensure games like this run smoothly and efficiently.

But when parents clash in the stands, when officials are doused with cleaning agents, or when the art of “twittering” reaches obnoxious boundaries, oversight and planning become more difficult.

“You see adult officials giving up,” Kwiatkowski said. “You see a shortage there.”

Glenwood Springs youth hockey official Jack Fry prepares to drop the puck for a face-off during a Grizzlies game February 5.
Ray K. Erku/Glenwood Spirngs Post Independent

Kwiatkowski, a Colorado youth hockey coach since 1996, said the league had to cancel games this season because officials were unavailable.

“There are still coaches losing and twittering the referees,” he said. “When they start tweeting a 14 or 12 year old, I shake my head. I’m like, ‘What are you doing here? This kid is 12 years old.’”

Ask most hockey fans: the sport is synonymous with witty returns and intense etiquette on the ice. Any moron who goes after a team sniper is subject to major backlash and a slew of penalty minutes.

But a concoction of the standard hockey environment and a global pandemic has helped exacerbate ill-advised behavior near or on any ice surface.

“I think society in general has become a bit more testicular,” Kwiatkowski said. “Everyone is a little more nervous. We are still in the middle of a pandemic.

There is still room to change the message of hockey, however, Kwiatkowski said.

Hockey organizations, including the Colorado Amateur Hockey Association, are deciding whether to start allowing officials to penalize teams for parents crossing the line.

Because without any intervention, the sport risks disappearing.

“I hope there’s going to be a lot of pressure from other parents,” Kwiatkowski said, “to say, ‘Listen, we need to relax here, because this is affecting our kids now. “”

Fresh ice cream

Jack Fry’s skates bit into fresh ice as he made his way to the free pass circle. Two players – one from Glenwood Springs, one from Steamboat Springs – leaned in close.

The 13-year-old referee, clutching a puck in his right hand, dropped it, sending the two eager young players battling for possession.

That Saturday game at the Glenwood Springs rink, laden with lovely breakaway goals and cheers from both benches, ended without a hitch.

Fry, joining fellow 15-year-old umpire Jacob Roggie, finally took the nets from their moorings to make way for the Zamboni without having to deal with any problems from coaches, players or parents.

“What I love about officiating is that it’s kind of like a job,” Fry said. “You can take whatever games you want. And what I love about hockey is that it’s just a fun sport and you hit people.

Although local adult umpires are currently scarce, the Glenwood Springs Youth Hockey Association still has 6-8 youth umpires available.

Young referees earn a modest income per game.

“It depends on the location,” Fry said. “They pay like $28, $30.”

Roggie, a freshman at Glenwood Springs High School, said he has so far saved at least $500 to $1,000 just officiating alone. He saves those funds for the university, he said.

A young hockey player from Glenwood Springs celebrates after scoring a goal against Steamboat on February 5.
Ray K. Erku/Glenwood Springs Post Independent

Good pay for Roggie, who said he was close to kicking people out due to behavioral issues. It all starts with not agreeing with a call, he said.

“You don’t know what’s going on in the player’s head. They might try to play the puck in a different way than other players,” he said. “So the official sees it in a way. Parents, coaches, they see it in another way.

Fry, who has refereed only about 12 games in his life, said he has yet to encounter any unsportsmanlike behavior. The Glenwood Springs Middle School pupil, however, saw it while playing.

“I never had to notify a parent,” he said. “But in some of my games that I’ve played, there’s been parents yelling and stuff.

“In Denver, where we had our last tournament, one of the coaches got kicked out because he kept yelling at the referees.”

For Roggie, hockey is a mental game, and the presence of smack talk – or better known as “chirping” – is a constant.

But when he’s on the ice as a player, he tries not to.

“My team does that a lot,” Roggie said. “I try not to tweet the referees too much, because I know what’s on their minds. I know how difficult it is.

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