Amateur hockey referee Scott Miskiewicz says he considered giving up officiating after he was sucker-punched by a player during a game last March.

“An incident like that, you kind of wonder is it worth the $35 you get for that game?" said the 18-year-old Manitoban, recalling the attack.

But while Miskiewicz continues to officiate, some amateur referees are fed up with the abuse heaped on them during games. While most of the abuse is verbal, it can turn physical, and deadly, as it did this week when a referee of an adult-league soccer match in Detroit died after he was punched in the head by a player upset that he was going to be ejected from the game.

The frequency with which these attacks are occurring and whether it’s increasing is difficult to say. Miskiewicz insisted that his incident was an anomaly, and that while he is mostly a target of benign verbal attacks, the physical attack was a first. 

In an email to Miskiewicz to offer him support after the assault, NHL official Vaughan Rody lamented that when it comes to referees, "We lose 10,000 great young men and woman a year due to abuse."

Bruce Tennant, who has been refereeing amateur hockey in Toronto for 40 years, said he was once cross-checked in the side of the head by a player after he threw him out of a game.

Tennant said he "could count on two hands the number of times I've been abused," but a lot of the senior referees are quitting because of the abuse they have received.

'Buried their head in the sand'

A couple of years ago, in response to what seemed to be a slew of reports of officials getting attacked after games in parking lots, Sports Officials Canada began tracking complaints. The organization, which represents sports officials across the country, is set to launch an abuse database.

“I think so many people have buried their head in the sand about this,” said Denise Pittuck, executive director of the organization. “They consider it part of the game, and they don’t think it’s affecting recruitment. Certainly now the sports are realizing recruitment is down, retention is down.”

Barry Mano, the president and founder of the U.S. National Association of Sports Officials, told The Associated Press that his group spends 20 per cent of its time on assault and liability-related issues, up from around three per cent 20 years ago. 

John Bieniewicz soccer referee

John Bieniewicz, a longtime soccer referee, died in hospital after being punched in the head during an adult league match in Detroit. (Associated Press)

Meanwhile, in Saskatchewan, the Saskatoon Referees Association said the number of referees dropped in 2013 because of fans and coaches abusing young officials. 

Two years ago, a report published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine — titled Violence in Canadian Amateur Hockey: The Experience of Referees in Ontario — found that more than 90 per cent of the 632 referees who responded to their survey said they were recipients of aggression and anger. Around 46 per cent said that referees are threatened by physical violence.

The study, co-authored by Toronto neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Tator along with Dr. Alun Ackery and Dr. Carolyn Snider, found that some referees reported they had been punched, spit on and had garbage thrown on them (with nine per cent saying police had to get involved.) Specific examples of abuse included a parent breaking a referee's finger, a referee grabbed by the throat by a player, sexual and homophobic comments to a female referee and a fan threatening to "carve out a linesman's eye."

'Not at a catastrophic level'

But Peter Woods, executive director of Hockey Manitoba, said that the media attention given to some of the abusive incidents may give the impression that it’s a worse problem than it is or has ever been. Woods said the number of complaints, ranging from threatening an official to actual physical contact, has remained stable throughout the years.

He said there are probably 10 to 15 incidents a year, with 60 to 70 per cent of those involving a threat to an official and maybe a couple where there's physical contact.

“One is probably too many, but it’s not at a catastrophic level that is unmanageable or that is negatively impacting our sport," he said.

Although she doesn't have hard data, Pittuck said the number of abusive incidents appears to be on the rise, and that there seem to be more physical attacks against referees and more attacks from spectators.

"There's always verbal abuse. It should never be part of the game," she said. "Officials shouldn’t have to accept that. But a lot people think that 'Hey, there’s  an official, I can yell at them, I can do whatever I want.' It’s that mentality that we’re trying to break."

Pittuck said that according to their research, younger officials are more willing to report abuse than older officials, who have developed an attitude that it's part of the game. She said abuse also seems to be more prevalent in team sports. 

Officials are also subject to cyberbullying, where those upset with a referee's officiating are putting their names and faces up on Facebook.

Tennant blamed some of the referees for the abuse, saying a lot of what officials get they bring on themselves.

"They put the striped jersey on and they think it's instant respect. You sort of have to earn that respect," he said.

"It's almost like they expect the abuse, so they don't even put an effort in, because they know they're going to get abused anyway."

With files from The Associated Press