After three consecutive seasons of decline, the number of hockey officials in Minnesota high school hockey has rebounded for a second straight season of growth.
Progress is relative.
The 649 registered officials is 19 more than in the 2021-22 season but still 46 (6.6%) fewer than the 695 officials registered in 2010-11, the season before rule changes brought on by the paralyzing check from behind on Benilde-St. Margaret's skater Jack Jablonski.
A lack of game officials is part of a national phenomenon across all sports and activities, and cures are being sought. The National Federation of State High School Associations recently held a media seminar entitled "Changing Behavior to Retain, Recruit Officials in High School Sports."
Locally, recruiting and retaining officials, specifically in hockey, is getting a boost from a classroom and a parent's influence.
Siblings D.J. and Sedona Stumpf, both students at Hill-Murray, have followed their father, Dan, into officiating. Sedona, a ninth-grader, is in her second season working youth games. She can already see a future in stripes similar to Dan's career at the high school and collegiate levels. D.J., meanwhile, aspires to referee in the National Hockey League. He is a junior in his fourth season of officiating.
“Being a young official, it's very intimidating to be out there for the first time, even if it's a mite game. You want the coaches to know what it's like to be in our shoes.”
Of course, simply depending on the sons and daughter of officials won't do. That's why Bill McCarthy at St. Thomas Academy created a health/physical education course at the Mendota Heights private school called "Hey Ref!" McCarthy, the older brother of former Minnesota North Stars player Tom McCarthy, set up the class to help students understand the communication, expectations and requirements of officiating in various levels and types of athletics.
Students taking the year-round class, McCarthy said, must "get paid to ref or umpire a game by the end of the semester" is order to pass.
It is perhaps telling that St. Thomas Academy has been unable to offer the class recently because of a lack of interested students, but McCarty said the "Hey Ref!" curriculum has produced a few officials and drawn inquiries from "12 states and 15-20 colleges."
"We need to fill a void," said McCarthy, a former official, "and you need to build from the ground up, not the top down."
Siblings see issues
In the experience of the Stumpf siblings, education is needed at the coaching level as well.
"Youth hockey coaches are required to complete a seminar and their modules," D.J. said. "Unfortunately, we have coaches who won't do that, either because they don't know where to do it or they just don't want to. And that leads to people being on the bench that really shouldn't be.
"Being a young official, it's very intimidating to be out there for the first time, even if it's a mite game. You want the coaches to know what it's like to be in our shoes."
D.J.'s abilities earned him the nod to officiate at the Junior Gold level, played by his high school peers unable to make varsity. He will be eligible to work varsity games upon his graduation from high school. But a trying experience two seasons ago almost ended Stumpf's budding career.
He helped call two Under-12 girls hockey games without issue. The boys C-Peewee game that followed "really got rough," he said. "The coaches were screaming at me for no reason, and players were getting pretty rough on the ice. I remember coming off the ice and thinking, 'I don't know what I'm doing.' I got home and my dad said, 'Just because it's hard doesn't mean it's not worth it.' "
The Stumpf siblings worked a pair of Under-10A games last week, starting with Delano against Farmington. After the game, an 11-0 Farmington victory, a Delano coach approached Sedona with concerns about the quickness with which she was dropping the puck for faceoffs.
D.J. said he told the coach: " 'You're on the bench, we're on the ice. We're controlling the faceoffs. You don't need to put your two cents in.' And then just skate away. Just make it quick, simple and easy."
Both siblings said officiating games helped grow their confidence. Sedona said steps to entice more young referees should include "educating coaches and having more communication with them about how to treat officials, especially younger females like me — because it is a little intimidating."
Where the need shows
The high school section playoffs are quickly approaching, and C.J. Beaurline, president of the St. Paul Hockey Officials Association, wants to see larger officiating crews at all 16 finals. Currently, he said, only four sections are assigned four-person crews. The rest have three-person crews.
Beaurline believes all section finals, given their importance and a lack of video replay in most venues, should have four officials.
"It's a no-brainer," said Beaurline, a veteran high school and NCAA Division I official.
He also knows what's keeping it from happening: too few officials.
"It's not a cost issue," he said. "But to do this for regular-season games, we would struggle to get two officials for junior varsity and then four to do varsity. That would create stress in our roster of officials."