Manitoulin school hockey ref objects to sanction from board, says he’ll quit

LITTLE CURRENT—If ever there was a case that proves just how high emotions can run and how ardent fan fervor can be when it comes to high school hockey on Manitoulin Island, the outcome of the January 16 Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS) home game played at the Little Current arena where they tilted with the visiting Lockerby Vikings is all the proof required.

Last week The Expositor reported on the explosive hometown game that resulted in Manitoulin official Jason Thibault calling the game with six minutes and 20 seconds remaining in the third period. Following a hit in the corner by a Mustang in the third period, which was deemed ‘clean’ by the refs, the game began to spiral out of control. One Lockerby player, upset by what he thought was a missed call, began to swear at Mr. Thibault, according to the official’s account of the situation. Another Lockerby player then began to taunt the Mustangs bench as well as some of the hometown fans in the crowd.

At this same time, one of the Lockerby players grabbed a Mustangs player by the facemask, not letting go. It eventually took three officials to stop the situation, which lasted upwards of over 30 seconds. This same player also threw a water bottle into the crowd as well as giving them ‘the finger.’

The Lockerby player was ejected from the game, but was visibly angered by the call and was noticeably agitated at Mr. Thibault as he tried to skate him off the ice, as witnessed by this newspaper. This breakdown in the game raised the ire of the fans, particularly children, who cheered and booed loudly once the game was called (ended by officials) and Lockerby skated off the ice.

As the team skated off the ice, one of the Vikings took his anger out on the arena door, smashing it and breaking the glass with his stick (an event which was captured by The Expositor and can be viewed online at www.manitoulin.ca).

The following week The Expositor learned that an official complaint had been made to the governing body for sports in the district, the Sudbury District Secondary Schools’ Athletic Association (SDSSAA), by Lockerby “to investigate the circumstances surrounding the January 16 seniors boys’ hockey game between Lockerby and Manitoulin having to be called prematurely over concerns reported by game official.”

The two-page ruling lists eight suspensions, seven of which were leveled against Lockerby players and the coach, with one against an MSS assistant coach.

“The SDSSAA Board of Reference is not empowered to question officials’ discretionary calls,” the comments section of the ruling states. “Where officials are steadfast in their reports, the board’s role is to support their decisions and assess penalties accordingly.”

“Concerns regarding the officiating of this game may explain various Lockerby players unsportsmanlike actions, but it will never excuse it,” the board continues. “The SDSSAA code of ethics indicates that players and coaches are expected to remain under control at all times despite challenging circumstances. This includes respectful and unemotional communications with game officials at all times.”

“Lockerby school administration is requested to address with its coaching staff: the profane language directed towards the arena attendant (following the broken glass) and the inappropriate and emotionally charged communications with the game official following the game,” it continues.

The board mandated three sanctions as a result of last Thursday’s hearing. Effective February 1: all remaining Friday evening (home) games in Little Current must have an increased visible presence of supervisors in place, be they MSS staff or parents, and that no spectators (are) allowed in the players area (the hallway which leads to the arena doors and where some fans like to watch through the glass); should these two teams (Manitoulin and Lockerby) meet in the upcoming playoffs, that the (MSS home) game(s) be played in the afternoon and not in the evening; and that all MSS home games have one referee and one linesman assigned from Sudbury to work with one referee and one linesman from the Island “to ensure the league mandated policy of assigning four man officiating crews wherever possible.” Sudbury officials will be paid mileage by the league and also a $20 meal allowance at the game, payable by MSS.

“I think the optics of this is worse than the reality,” stated David Brazeau, SDSSAA board chair, in an interview with The Expositor Monday morning. “There were no sanctions against the (MSS) players, who were well behaved and conducted themselves appropriately.”

“We have every confidence in the officials on the Island, that’s not the issue,” Mr. Brazeau added, noting the last of the sanctions. “And we know there’s a limited pool on the Island of officials. Jason (Thibault) is a great ref, but he ends up officiating every home game in the league, and that’s just bad practice.”

Mr. Brazeau said the four-man system is “very effective,” which limits a bad rapport between players, fans and officials that can sometimes build.

“I know it (the sanction) has been taken as ‘no faith in Jason,’ but it’s not a reflection of his capacity as an official, but for the good of the game,” the board chair continued, adding that it can work both ways too, if Sudbury officials at a Sudbury game wish.

Mr. Thibault does indeed take personal exception to the sanction as it relates to his credibility.

“To suggest bringing in one referee and one linesman—I’m just appalled that they are effectively saying that Sudbury refs are better,” the official said.

The ref defends his decision to call the game on January 16 when things escalated after the 6:20 mark. Leading up to that time, “There were no fights, no suspensions, no injuries and no roughing after the whistle which indicates to me that the game wasn’t mismanaged,” he said. “In fact, I thought it was a good game until that point.”

“The hit in the corner (the event that precipitated the chain of events) was, to me, a clean hit,” he added.

Mr. Thibault said he feels the players and coaches do not have a good handle on Hockey Canada rules and sanctions, which high school hockey follows. “I’m actually wondering if they know what those standards are,” he said, explaining that the four standards are: no head contact, no checking from behind, restraining fouls and shared respect. The latter “was violated Friday night at the 6:20 mark,” he said, adding that there is plenty of hitting and trash talking in high school hockey. “If I let the game continue, and an all out brawl happened, then I would have mismanaged the game.”

“And none of this excuses their (Lockerby’s j13) behaviour,” Mr. Thibault continued. “I didn’t swear at the players, I didn’t swear at the fans, or tell a coach what a waste of time he was—I was the only one who remained calm. I will never do another high school game with guys coming in from Sudbury, figuring we need help with our officiating program; that puts my credibility in question. If they’re going to bring in two, they might as well bring in four.”

Mr. Brazeau said SDSSAA follows Hockey Canada rules but with escalated sanctions for misbehaviour. “There’s probably no tougher sanctions than high school hockey,” he said, explaining that the number of suspensions for unsportsmanlike behaviour has doubled in recent years.

“SDSSAA has made it clear that coaches are responsible for the actions of their players—if a coach has a good handle on things, so will the players,” he said, noting that if 50 penalty minutes are accrued in a game, the coach is suspended. “No question, we hold coaches responsible.”

“High school hockey, to the credit of SDSSAA, has seen a drastic reduction in penalties in the last four years and the Mustangs have moved forward by leaps and bounds in this regard thanks to the efforts of coach Brad Bond.”

Mr. Brazeau noted that Manitoulin is the only team in the league to have Friday night home games, and it is the wish of SDSSAA to preserve that.

“I’ve been to those games, it’s exciting and there’s lots of energy,” he said.

Mr. Thibault said that the job of the official is to manage the game. “For them to suggest I should control the behaviour of a bunch of teenagers is ludicrous. It is not my job to control them, my job is to ensure two things: that the game is fair and safe.”

The official called the board ruling, “punitive to MSS. They weren’t the instigators,” he added. “The fans may be loud, but it’s up to the players to conduct themselves.”

Mr. Thibault told The Expositor that if the third sanction wasn’t reversed, that would be it for him and high school hockey.

MSS Principal Laurie Zahnow called the sanction “fair.”

“I’m really proud of our guys and how they handled themselves, as did our coach Brad Bond—they are a great bunch of guys,” she said.