“Even if you're sure it's the right call, there’s a lot of doubt when you have a dozen people telling you that you suck, that it’s not a good call.”
When Danny Parsons (now 19) became an ice hockey referee at the age of 14, he didn’t realize how much willpower and resilience the job demands. He didn’t expect the criticism, the insults or the pressure that many games would bring.
He had been playing hockey since he was about 8-years-old, so he thought refereeing would be a fun way to earn some extra money, especially since it pays above minimum wage.
“You don't really know what it’s like [to be a referee] until you're actually out there,” Danny said. “It's so much harder than I thought it would be. Games go by so fast and you can only look in one place at a time, so you can easily miss something.”
One game in January 2019 was especially tough.
Although the game started off mild without any penalties, it quickly escalated as the pressure increased and players began playing more aggressively.
Danny said that he did not call some borderline rule violations, which made players think they could get away with pushing, slashing each other with hockey sticks and shoving even after stoppages of play.
“It's really important as a referee to establish the standard of what players can get away with in a game,” Danny said. “I probably didn't do as good a job as I should have.”
Near the beginning of the game, one player checked another, but since it was shoulder to shoulder and delivered in a legal manner, Danny thought it was a clean hit and didn’t call it.
Enraged, the coach yelled out from the bench, accusing him of calling penalties inconsistently. From the stands, displeased parents shouted comments like “Where’s the call ref?!” and “You’re blind!”
“Even if you're sure it's the right call, there’s a lot of doubt when you have a dozen people telling you that you suck, that it’s not a good call,” Danny said.
A little bit later, a player lowered his shoulder and checked another player in the head. Danny called a penalty — a 2-minute minor plus a 10-minute misconduct for head contact, which provides a disadvantage to the penalized player’s team. The offending player sits in the penalty box for the duration of the penalty, leaving his team with 4 skaters on the ice instead of 5. While the penalized player didn’t argue, the anger he felt was apparent.
After the player skated back onto the rink, the game spiraled out of control. During the second period, that player used his body to protect the puck and an opposing player hit him with the hockey stick while making a play for the puck. In Danny’s opinion, there was no penalty because the stick’s contact with the body was minor and unavoidable. The player who had been hit thought otherwise.
When the play stopped, the player, infuriated, skated up to Danny, and began accusing him of being biased because the two had played against each other years ago. Danny, however, barely remembered him and had simply tried to call penalties based on the rules of the game. In hindsight, Danny said that he should have given the player an unsportsmanlike conduct minor penalty.
“Plays are often not very clear and are up to interpretation,” Danny said. “There's a lot of second-guessing: ‘should I have called that? and ‘maybe I should have not called it.’”
Soon after, the player who had argued with Danny checked another player in the head. Danny gave him another 10-minute misconduct, and since it was his second misconduct penalty, it translated to a game misconduct: an ejection from the current game and a suspension from the next game.
“I was nervous when I realized that I had to make the call because I knew the game was already too tense,” he said. “I didn’t want the game to escalate further.”
After the other referee escorted the player off the ice, Danny said he was relieved. He tried to focus on getting through the rest of the game play-by-play without dwelling on previous decisions.
In the final seconds of the game, one of the players got injured when an offending player slashed him (struck him with his hockey stick) — an obvious penalty. However, neither Danny nor the other referee called it, as they were looking in another direction when it happened.
When the game finally ended, Danny and the other referee skated off the ice. As they were walking to their locker room, three of the parents rushed up and began walking alongside them, thrusting out a camera and demanding that the referees look at the video footage showing the player who got injured at the end of the game. They claimed that the referees had a responsibility to keep the players safe and hadn’t adequately done their jobs.
Danny and the other referee ignored them and entered the locker room. Although Danny understood their anger, he thought the harassment was unwarranted as there was nothing he could do to change the result of the game. Eventually, the rink’s security guard escorted the two referees to the parking lot.
“I'd never had anything like that happen to me,” Danny said. “The game already was stressful enough because of the controversies and arguments about the calls we made, but to have people follow us made me think: ‘Why am I even doing this?’”
As he was driving back home, Danny promised himself to be stricter with enforcing the rules on the ice and making sure players don't get away with small infractions. He realized that he was letting himself get pushed over.
“Up until then I had let what people say get to my head and that might have been affecting my performance,” he said. “After this game I made much a much greater effort to just focus on my game and not take the insults personally.”
Danny decided to ignore the criticism he receives and trust himself to make the right decisions based on his own judgment. He said that the mistakes he made during this game due to inexperience helped him improve as a referee and build his self-esteem.
“When I first started refereeing, my confidence was hurt because I had never faced so much criticism before.” Danny said. “Learning to deal with it and do my job anyway was important to me because it taught me to not be so worried about what other people think. It might seem counterintuitive, but if you face criticism over and over, you get used to it and eventually, it doesn’t bother you as much.”