THUNDER BAY — A pair of local hockey officials are making it easier for new referees to get on the ice.
Colin Dzijacky and Patrick Galloway have come together to start Earn Your Stripes, which started off as a project that Dzijacky did as part of his schooling through Laurentian University but now has the backing of Thunder Bay Minor Hockey, the Lakehead Minor Hockey Association and the Lakehead Junior Hockey League.
“The idea first stemmed from me taking on the assignment role for [officials] in Thunder Bay Minor. This is my first year of doing it, and I didn't realize the amount of effort and how few officials we had in our system,” Dzijacky said. “So, through talking with all the officials in dressing rooms, [we tried] to come up with different ideas of how we can get more people involved, and I stumbled upon this initiative.”
Earn Your Stripes, which officially launched its online campaign last week, supplies those who are interested in becoming a hockey referee with jerseys, pants, whistles, clip-on bands and patches. The individual is then able to try being a referee, and once they have earned enough money to pay off the cost of the equipment, they can either decide to return the gear or they can pay for it and continue being an official.
“This is fully funded by Thunder Bay Minor Hockey and the associations that form Thunder Bay Minor Hockey. I presented the idea to them at their [annual general meeting]," Dzijacky said.
"It was [initially] deferred for some deliberation and then we came back in the summer time and they passed it. I was able to get quotes from different wholesale suppliers, and I approached a local vendor and [was] able to partner with them and they were able to match the cost. They also offer free size changes at no cost to us or the officials doing it. Being able to partner with someone local has been very instrumental.”
Dzijacky and Galloway were able to recruit five new officials at the Port Arthur Arena last week and have plans to approach all the different teams in minor hockey, junior hockey and even university athletics to get more people involved and aware of the program.
Dzijacky is encouraged by what he’s heard from those who wore the stripes beginning last year.
“They are excited [and didn’t] realize the difficulty and the sight lines that you have when you're on the ice and not when you're in the stands or on the bench,” he added. “It's refreshing to see how open their eyes get when they really try this for the first time and the majority of them get hooked. I don't think I can recall a single official leaving officiating because they didn't enjoy it. It was more so time commitments or wanting to work something else.”
The Dryden native is a former junior hockey goalie, suiting up with five Junior A teams, including the 2012 Humboldt Broncos who hosted the national championship.
He concluded his playing days with Ontario Tech Ridgebacks in U Sports when academics forced him to try being a referee.
“I first started refereeing two years ago, and I feel like every time I step on the ice, I learn something new from officials who [are either rookies or those] who have been doing it forever,” Dzijacky said.
“Everyone has a unique perspective and a different idea of how you can improve. And if you're willing to open your eyes and listen, you can improve drastically right away. I was [working earlier this month] with a younger official, and he was showing me how he drops the puck, and it was something I never even thought of before. So, there's these different things and different things people pick up from other people.”
When asked about officiating numbers, Dzijacky said there were 71 who participated in Thunder Bay minor and tournamnets, and only 39 who worked regular season games.
The numbers are dwindling, he added.
“When we look historically back, it's about a third to half of what we had prior to [the COVID-19 pandemic], which is worrisome," he said. "This year we lost four very prominent officials that did a lot of games for us again, not due to not liking officiating, but more so leaving for school, work or other opportunities. So, these are big holes that we have to fill and we're in the process of doing that.”
Dzijacky is aware that being an official means there are confrontations, but people can dictate how many games they want to work outside of their everyday life.
“We have an official pool that is extremely diverse; We have doctors, engineers, sales people, business owners, plumbers, people in the trades. This a great networking opportunity.”