WINNIPEG - It was at a hockey game between eight-year-olds in Seattle, Wash., but it could just as easily have been at a rink in Winnipeg, or anywhere else.
Because this is a scene that’s played out across the country, unfortunately.
An overbearing hockey dad, his son’s team losing badly, hurls F-bombs at the 12-year-old referee.
Intimidated, the ref is hesitant with a call or two, and the boor in the stands lets him have it some more.
“Jes--- f-ing Chr--, blow your f-ing whistle!” he yells at the kid, his own son’s team falling further and further behind and his frustration boiling over.
Sitting in the stands nearby was NHL official Vaughan Rody of Winnipeg, who was supposed to be enjoying a proud moment as a father.
Problem is, it was Rody’s son taking the abuse.
Following in his dad’s skate strides, Bryson Rody was making his debut in the striped shirt.
Welcome to the job, kid.
“Can you believe it?” Rody said. “It’s his first game, ever.”
The ongoing abuse of officials in hockey has Rody more than a little concerned.
“It’s an epidemic,” he said. “We’re losing kids every day. They’re fearful. Who wouldn’t be? We don’t allow bullying in our school buses. We don’t allow bullying anywhere.
“But we allow it at the rink.”
That bullying by the parents in the stands leads to worse behaviour on the ice.
Last weekend in Brandon, a 15-year-old kicked out of a game for verbally abusing the refs took a two-handed slash at a linesman on his way off the ice. The parents went ballistic, and the game had to be called.
Tournament organizers suspended the 15-year-old indefinitely and contacted organizers of other summer tournaments to make sure they were aware of it.
Rody applauds that cooperative approach.
“These kids have to be protected,” he said. “They’re just kids. They’re doing the best job they can. Just because you’re wrong doesn’t give anybody the right to threaten you, push you, slash you or denounce you.”
The official who was attacked, 37-year-old Darren Height of Brandon, says he’s considering hanging up the whistle for good.
“Part of me still loves the game,” Height said. “At the same time, is it worth it?”
For every incident that makes headlines, like the one in Brandon, there are no doubt a bunch that don’t.
And that scares Rody.
“I understand there’s frustration,” he said. “You have to realize when you’ve crossed the line. When you cross the line from emotion to abuse... that’s not acceptable.”
So when does it go from healthy, game-fuelled emotion to abuse?
“When it becomes personal, it becomes abuse,” Rody said.
And it’s up to each one of us who witnesses it to stop it.
“When Bill’s making an ass of himself, tap Bill on the shoulder and tell him he’s making an ass of himself,” Rody suggested. “We don’t think it involves us. It does.”
Rody once approached an unruly hockey dad in the stands and started to chat, eventually asking him where he did his shopping.
When he heard it was at Safeway, he suggested the father yell at the summer student bagging his groceries if he wasn’t doing it right.
The guy looked at Rody like he was crazy. Then he got his point.
“When you bring it up to them, they get it,” Rody said. “I don’t think they hear themselves.
“It’s such a disheartening thing for (the officials). It’s those three guys versus the world that day. I’ve been there. I’ve been spit on. I’ve needed a police escort out of town.”
An NHL linesman for 13 years, Rody says even he and his colleagues disagree about calls between periods. That’s because every play looks different from different angles.
Rody wonders where the future whistle-blowers will come from if the abuse doesn’t stop.
“We’re losing 10,000 officials a year,” he said, pointing to Hockey Canada statistics. “Those are astronomical numbers. How do you replace those? It’s impossible.
“You want to yell, come yell at us. But to yell at 13- or 14-year-old kids, there’s no place for that.”
Rody is thrilled his 12-year-old wants to be an official like his dad, calling it “the greatest job in the world,” despite the pitfalls.
Having both his sons (10-year-old Owen wants to be the pilot that flies his older brother to NHL games) take Christmas break to watch him work at Madison Square Garden last season was one of those priceless memories the family will never forget.
But at that rink in Seattle this past winter, Bryson was getting off to a rough start.
And Rody’s wife eventually decided she’d had enough of her son being abused.
Sitting down beside the problem parent, she asked which player was his son, then proceeded to tell the guy how his kid was awful, the worst player on his team.
“How dare you!” the dad began.
“No, how dare you,” Rody’s wife shot back. “That’s my son you’ve been yelling at for 40 minutes.”
The man was speechless, for a change.
“It’s funny,” Rody said. “But sad.”
Clinic gives confidence to would-be officials
There’s no doubt Vaughan Rody’s heart is in officiating.
Now his money is, too.
A couple years ago the Winnipegger, a linesman in the NHL the last 13 years, bought the Okanagan School of Officiating.
And later this month Rody, who lives in Seattle, brings the school to his hometown for the second straight year.
Concerned about officials quitting early because of the abuse they suffer, Rody hopes the clinic gives confidence to those who want to pursue what is often a thankless career.
“It’s about making the game better by making officials better,” Rody said. “If three kids from Winnipeg can make it to the NHL, why can’t they?”
Rody has recruited the other two Manitoba-born officials working in the NHL, fellow Winnipegger Ryan Galloway and Stonewall’s Rob Martell, to help.
“They volunteered,” Rody said. “We get 14 weekends off in the summer, on average. And for them to give a weekend up speaks volumes to what these guys are about.”
Last year the clinic attracted 27 officials. Rody says that number is expected to reach 35 this time.
The four-day clinic, for officials 14 years old and up, runs in conjunction with a massive minor hockey tournament at the MTS Iceplex, June 14-17.
Participants are graded for their work in games, plus get instruction in power skating and general fitness.
Registration info is at www.o-sopro.ca.