Roaring Fork Valley ‘shorthanded’ on hockey refs: Poor parent behavior driving shortage, officials say
A perfect hockey game for Hamilton “Ham” Tharp is when the whistle rarely touches his lips.
“When players play well and players give us a good game, it makes us want to get better,” Tharp said. “It makes us want to stay sharp.”
Tharp has officiated hockey in the Western Slope for the past 30 years, and the Aspen native and Glenwood Springs Youth Hockey Association president simply loves the game.
Kids show up with giant smiles and all they want to do is play, he said. Meanwhile, he always learns something new about either himself, the game he loves or human nature.
At 60 years old, Tharp typically officiates a weekend’s worth of games after working a full week as a superintendent in the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation Department.
“I love being on the ice with the kids,” he said.
But the joy of Western Slope hockey is facing a crisis of poor behavior from some parents, coaches and players.
“If the kids don’t see officiating as a safe place to express themselves and a safe place to explore the game that they love, then you’re nipping that stuff in the bud,” Tharp said.
In turn, the number of Roaring Fork Valley referees has dwindled, and local hockey games are sometimes being overseen by less than what’s needed.
With about five go-to refs 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 more officials to fill in the gaps.
COVID-19 is partly to blame, Tharp said. But more than that, referees are simply getting burned out.
“The abuse by coaches, the abuse by players, the abuse by parents — they just get tired of it,” Tharp said.
Examples of such abuse give good reason.
In November 2021, a disgruntled parent in Vail sprayed a referee in the face with Lysol. Tharp said there were also two hockey parents in Summit who recently assaulted each other.
“No charges were filed,” he said. “But the league suspended both those parents from the rest of the season.”
Tharp said high school officiating crews get paid about $62 per ref, per game.
Even for youth refs, one of the first questions they ask when they’re getting trained in is how to safely throw out an unruly coach, Tharp said.
“I don’t know what it is about our current culture where people feel empowered and entitled to voice their inappropriate opinions about a referee trying to call a kids’ game,” he said. “But that’s kind of where we are.”
T.K. Kwiatkowski sat in a back room behind racks upon racks of skate rentals at Glenwood Springs Ice Rink as he began considering a worse case scenario.
“You lose the officials, you lose the games and hockey could go away,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to, but it could. So the culture shift of trying to lessen the abuse of the officials is a big piece of it.”
A girls youth hockey game just ended, and before the Zamboni began cleaning the ice for the next bout, both teams lined up at center ice and shook hands with gleeful smiles on their faces.
As Glenwood Springs Youth Hockey Association executive director, Kwaitkowski’s responsibility is to keep games like this running smoothly and efficiently.
But when parents spar in the stands, when officials are maced with cleaning agents, or when the art of “chirping” reaches obnoxious frontiers, oversight and planning grows more difficult.
“You’re seeing adult officials just give up,” Kwiatkowski said. “You’re seeing a shortage there.”
Kwiatkowski, a Colorado youth hockey coach since 1996, said the league has had to cancel games this season because officials were unavailable.
“There’s still coaches that lose it and chirp the referees,” he said. “When they start chirping 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 comebacks and intense, on-ice etiquette. Any goon who goes after a team sniper is subject to major backlash and a slew of penalty minutes.
But a concoction of hockey’s standard environment and a worldwide pandemic has helped exacerbate ill-advised behavior near or on any sheet of ice.
“I think society in general has gotten a little testier,” Kwiatkowski said. “Everyone’s a little more on edge. We’re in the middle of a pandemic still.”
There’s still, however, room to change the messaging of hockey, Kwiatkowski said.
Hockey organizations, including the Colorado Amateur Hockey Association, are deciding whether they should start allowing officials to penalize teams for parents who cross the line.
Because without any intervention, the sport is at risk of going away.
“I would hope there would be some severe pressure from the other parents,” Kwiatkowski said, “to say, ‘Look, we got to chill out here, because this is affecting our kids now.'”
Jack Fry’s skates bit into a fresh sheet of ice as he made his way to the face-off circle. Two players — one from Glenwood Springs, one from Steamboat Springs — leaned in closely.
The 13-year-old ref, gripping a puck in his right hand, dropped it, sending the two eager youth girls players scrumming for possession.
This Saturday game at Glenwood Springs ice rink, loaded with pretty breakaway goals and yelps of encouragement from both benches, ended without a hitch.
Fry, joining 15-year-old fellow ref Jacob Roggie, eventually took the nets of their moorings to make way for the Zamboni without having to deal with any problems from coaches, players or parents.
“What I like about refereeing is, it’s sort of like a job,” Fry said. “You can take games that you want. And what I like about hockey is that, it’s just a fun sport, and you get to hit people.”
While local adult referees are currently scarce, Glenwood Springs Youth Hockey Association still has 6-8 youth refs at their disposal.
Young refs make a modest, per-game income.
“It depends on the place,” Fry said. “They pay like $28, $30.”
Roggie, a Glenwood Springs High School freshman, said he’s so far saved at least $500-$1,000 just by officiating alone. He’s saving these funds for college, he said.
Good pay for Roggie, who said he’s been pretty close to kicking people out because of behavioral issues. It all starts with not agreeing with a call, he said.
“You don’t know what’s going on through the player’s head. They might try to play the puck a different way than other players,” he said. “So then the official sees it one way. Parents, coaches, they see it another way.”
Fry, who’s only officiated about 12 games in his life, said he hasn’t encountered any unsportsmanlike behavior yet. The Glenwood Springs Middle School student, however, has seen it while playing.
“I’ve never had to warn a parent,” he said. “But in some of my games that I’ve played, there’s been some parents that have been yelling and stuff.
“Down in Denver, where we had our last tournament, one of the coaches got kicked off because they kept yelling at the refs.”
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 do it.
“My team does it a lot,” Roggie said. “I try not to chirp the refs a lot, because I know what’s going through their head. I know how difficult it is.”
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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