Abuse of minor-hockey referees is a significant factor in a 30 per cent dropout rate in Canada this winter.

"It's a concern," said Norm Dueck, the Canadian Hockey Association's manager of officiating based in Calgary, in confirming the alarming dropout rate. "At some point, we might get to the point that we have a serious shortage of officials."

That is already happening in Saskatchewan, where the dropout rate in the last four years has averaged 35 per cent.

"The abuse factor leads to more and more people leaving," Dueck said. "The game of hockey is advancing but if officiating doesn't keep up and we can't provide the people who maintain a standard out there, it'll be a loss for the game as a whole."

Many referees and linesmen working minor-hockey games are teenagers. Coaches, players and parents yell at them, and worse. Criminal charges are pending in various cases across the country.

The coach of a team of 10- and 11-year-olds in the Brantford, Ont., region was arrested last week and charged with threatening to kill a 17-year-old referee.

On-ice officials in Nanaimo, B.C., declined to work a weekend schedule last month to protest the abuse to which they were being subjected.

As part of its Shared Respect program, the CHA distributed posters to be displayed in arenas.

The message: Yelling at the refs will help your team win. 'Cause they really like that. (Do ya think?)

In fine print underneath: We lost 10,000 officials every year. Are you the cause?

Yet, the abuse continues.

The CTV news program W5 sent a crew to Saskatchewan in December to delve into the problem.

"The focus was in Prince Albert because it had the biggest dropout rate of any region in the country, and also because Prince Albert, we felt, was the hockey capital of Canada," program host Tom Clark said from his Toronto office. "It's got a long history of producing NHL players and also has more ice rinks per capita than any place in Canada.

"When we started the story, we thought we were doing a story about an impending crisis. What's happened since, is that it's grown into a full-blown crisis across the country."

The day might come when children show up at arenas only to find their games cancelled because there are no on-ice officials available, Clark said.

"The bottom line is that it's going to get worse," he said. "It's not just a question of people leaving the game but one of people not even coming into it."

The Prince Albert association had 61 referees when W5 filmed. Now it has 45. It held free clinics last year to certify referees, and nobody showed up.

"Obviously, the physical assaults out there have really taken their toll," Clark said.

He relates the story of attending a nephew's game recently in Aurora, Ont.

"All the parents in the stands knew I was doing a story about abusive referees," Clark said. "They kidded me about it.

"Then, for the duration of the game, they heckled and howled at the referee. It was unbelievable."

The Greater Toronto Hockey League was short 100 on-ice officials prior to the 2000-2001 season.

Former NHL referee Bruce Hood has been outspoken on the topic of abuse of minor-hockey referees.

"The idea that one-third of the referees go and leave every year is just a disaster," Hood told W5.

The 1972 Canada-Soviet series set a bad example, he said. Intimidation was rampant on the ice. The lack of respect for referees has only got worse since, he said.

"The attitude to win at any cost creates almost animals in some people when it comes to dealing with referees," Hood said.

Shouting parents intimidate 13- and 14-year-old referees.

"Things that parents say can be downright out of order," Hood said, adding that attitudes must change.

Clark's report on the state of refereeing in minor hockey in Canada runs during the W5 broadcast Sunday night at 10 p.m. EST.

by Neil Stevens