01/25/2012 12:34 EST | Updated 03/26/2012 05:12 EDT

Minor hockey refs link game discipline to safety

A group of referees is giving Canadian minor hockey coaches, parents and other fans something to think about the next time they’re about to launch a verbal attack on an off-ice official who misses a call.

More than 600 referees — 92 per cent from Ontario — participated in a spring 2010 survey published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine that concluded increased aggression by those surrounding the game heightens the risk of injury for players on the ice.

Coaches are the most important individuals for determining player safety, said 63 per cent of the anonymous referees from children’s recreational leagues to the junior and semi-professional ranks, according to the study titled Violence in Canadian Amateur Hockey.

“We found that hockey referees in Canada perceived a lack of discipline and obeying of hockey rules leading to an increased aggression and injury,” the study co-authored by Toronto neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Tator, Dr. Alun Ackery and Dr. Carolyn Snider concluded.

More than 90 per cent of the 632 referees said they were the “recipients of aggression and anger [while] 55 per cent had been involved in hockey games where aggressive behaviour resulted in the referee losing control of the game.”

Another 71 per cent believe games with verbal or physical abuse of refs by coaches, fans and parents lead to an increasing risk of injury to on-ice participants.

No fewer than 600 of the referees said they are targets of verbal assault while 46 per cent are threatened by physical violence.

Among the more extreme incidents reported against refs was a broken finger, courtesy of a parent, to an official suffering a concussion after being sucker-punched in the head.

“This potential lack of respect and hostility for referees from coaches, parents, and fans creates an environment that may put all on-ice participants at higher risk for injury,” concluded the authors, who contacted 21 referees-in-chief from all provincial and territorial Hockey Canada organizations plus numerous private adult hockey leagues.

An answer to the problem, the referees suggest, is stricter discipline and more education aimed at parents, coaches and players to make the game safer.

In particular:

- Educational sessions between referees and parents.

- Tougher penalties for abusive parents and increased suspensions for abusive coaches.

- The elimination of fighting from all levels of hockey.

- Changing the rules and mentality at the game’s professional level

The study wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as better than 80 per cent of the respondents said they enjoyed the exercise or contributing to the game.