Whether it is High School, College or Club Hockey, the season winds down with each and every player, coach and umpire assessing the past three months to determine if their season was a success. It’s the time of year when everyone involved in hockey focuses on the light at the end of the tunnel with a pot of gold being there for the taking. The pressure mounts, the weather gets colder and many will play the last competitive game of their career. Some will be happy, some will be sad, some will feel cheated and others just glad that it has come to an end.
This is “March Madness” Hockey Style!
As players give their all to help the team get into the “Elite Eight”, then the “Final Four” and ultimately the “Championship Game”, those involved in the game administration must give their all as well. This is the time when not only parents, but sports enthusiast and the general public comes out to watch and cheer for their favorite team hoping to help push them to the next level. Everyone must put their best foot forward to allow the show to be on the field and not have “energy” directed away from the student athletes in any way.
With the added excitement of playoff hockey, players have a level of adrenalin above what is found in a regular season game. They will try harder for sure, but will also attempt desperation tackles and even be a little more physical as they go for the ball knowing their team wants to advance to the next round. With this in mind, umpires must manage with the understanding that emotions and tensions will be high. They must be firm, clear and fair when administering decisions. Nothing should change from the level of tolerance allowed during the season just because the stage has changed. If a card is warranted, it should be used, not downgraded or dismissed because of the possible ramifications as to whether a team plays with the full complement of players on the field. But also, because of the playoff atmosphere, umpires must be focused like never before to be sure that the infraction deserves the penalty assessed. “Nothing should take the energy from the players on the field.”
The coaching community also plays a huge role in playoff hockey. Coaches as always, want the best for their players and will do everything possible for their team to advance. Coaches, just like umpires, are part of the administration of the game and not part of the show. The energy of the games must be focused on the players for the enjoyment of all who came to support their teams. The emotions and intensity of coaches will also run higher during playoff hockey. No coach wants their season to end and surely does not like it when their team is eliminated from the tournament. As an administrator of the game, just like umpires, coaches should not allow their emotions or dislikes to take any of the focus off of the players. Umpires are not perfect, perceptions are different and each team wants something different. As any hockey person is aware, no decision of the umpire pleases both teams at the same time. It has to be understood that umpires are feeling the same pressures as any coach or player. They have the added responsibility to make decisions that may not be popular, but necessary for the fair and safe administration of the game. With this understanding, the coaching community can keep their focus on the players, not on the umpires so that, “Nothing takes the energy from the players on the field.”
There is a big difference between teams, coaches and umpires come tournament time. When a team wins, they and their coach are guaranteed to move to the next round. Umpires have to give their best performance possible with only the “hope” of being selected to move on. When the next round of appointments for matches comes out, umpires have the same emotions as others, some happy, some sad, some cheated and some glad that the season is over. With the umpire pool being as small as it is, umpires work at least twice as many games per year as any team plays on average. Yet, come playoff time when they are the most worn out and tired, umpires are expected to be even more perfect than the regular season expectations, so that, “Nothing takes the energy from the players on the field.”
Umpires must rise above the tiredness because the game and the players deserve the best when they are giving their best to perform on the tournament stage. Umpires must realize that every game is the same as an Olympic or World Cup final as far as the players are concerned. They must be on top of the game for the entire game and nothing less is acceptable. Each game will have players who will be playing the last game of their competitive careers and others who are trying to impress in order to play at a higher level. Umpires will not be perfect, but have to be as perfect as humanly possible for that day and that game as it means the world to the participants. They must administer with their best cool, calm and collected demeanor so that, “Nothing takes the energy from the players on the field.”
Hockey is a game of fitness, skill and strategy where the most fit and innovative teams should move to the next round of games. Tournament time is the most exciting and emotional time for everyone involved in our sport. Not only the participants, but the fans and spectators deserve the best show that we, the hockey family, can produce. It will take a command performance from coaches and umpires to provide players the environment to produce the best show possible. Let’s all work to make every game in every tournament a show worth remembering and that, “Nothing takes the energy from the players on the field”.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steve Horgan lives in Region 7 and has been involved with hockey since 1983. He was appointed to the World Cup / Olympic List of Umpires in 1992 and umpired the Olympics in 1996 and 2000 and the 1994 and 1998 World Cup Tournaments. Steve umpired 85 International Matches over his career and is USA Field Hockey's interpreter for the Rules of Hockey as well as the rules interpreter for the NCAA Modifications Committee.