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Low pay, high abuse: For the love of the $@*%&# ref

Peter Coleman, the referee-in-chief at True North Hockey makes a call during a game.

DAVE CHAN/The Globe and Mail

For about $25 an hour, Bruce Tennant has taken countless verbal slams and one physical attack that saw him haul a man to court.

"Yeah, I've been intentionally hit," says the 49-year-old Toronto hockey referee, recalling a men's rec league game in the early 1990s. The player was booted from the ice after one too many penalties. He came back for revenge - right at the neck of Mr. Tennant.

"He followed me across the ice and cross-checked me in the back of the head with his stick," says the seasoned ref, who's sported the stripes since he was 14 years old. "I wasn't injured, but he was found guilty and was given a suspended sentence."

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The job can be thankless, especially in beer leagues where refs are paid far less than those who do official league games. It can be tough on the ego - NHL referee Stephane Auger faced accusations he threatened Vancouver Canucks player Alex Burrows, a drama exacerbated by comments from CBC commentator Ron MacLean - and even dangerous. Last month in Woodstock, Ont., a Junior C hockey referee had his throat sliced by an errant skate blade while trying to break up a brawl.

So why subject yourself to the punishment? For amateur refs, it's all for the love of the game.

Many rec league refs are former players and do it to remain a part of the game, says Chuck Faultless, who organizes tournaments for the Canadian Adult Recreational Hockey Association. Others are young guys who don't have the skills to turn pro. And some can't ref in official games due to time constraints and family duties. Plus adult rec leagues, as opposed to kid's hockey or the official leagues, are far more relaxed, Mr. Faultless says.

"It's thankless in a lot of ways," says Mr. Faultless who has refereed for the past 40 years, 20 of those in beer leagues. "But it's thankful

too, because there are a lot of guys who do appreciate what you do.

"We've got a couple of leagues we do where if they're having a beer and sandwiches, they'll bring some into our room."

But with the camaraderie comes challenges.

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The job demands not only a solid grip on the rules but also definitely a thick skin, says Peter Coleman, the referee in chief for True North Toronto, an adult rec league. Some refs can't take the pressure.

"You get to a point where, because you're constantly being yelled at and abused verbally, you back off calling things, which is just human nature," he says. "You're intimidated."

The mere act of throwing on the skates and wielding a stick can stir unprecedented aggression in players, says Arni Eggertson, a 57-year-old rec league ref in Toronto.

"Some of the nicest guys off the ice, you wonder what happened to them," he says, noting one incident two weeks ago when a collegial player suddenly tore off his gloves to fist fight an opponent. "They work hard and they don't like to lose and I suppose [it hit him]that night, or something happened that I didn't see."

Mr. Eggertson acknowledges that he misses a lot of calls. And if he didn't, "I wouldn't be refereeing men's hockey on a Monday night - I'd be on TV."

In his rec league experience, verbal assaults are rare compared with the minor league games, which tend to bring out rowdy fans, says the retired Toronto Police Service staff sergeant. Just last week some onlookers threatened to take him on in the parking lot after the game.

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"Fans are entitled, they pay to get into the rink and they know that I'm getting paid," he says. "But if they knew how much I was getting paid for the abuse that I take … ." perhaps they wouldn't unleash such attacks, he adds.

Part of the draw to rec hockey is the lack of spectator pressure and politics, says Pat Frost, who assigns referees to games and tournaments in the Ottawa area.

"You don't have to deal with the screaming parents. What you have is a bunch of adults out to have a good time," he says. That attitude leads to fewer skirmishes, though some refs say those same heckling parents pepper the rec teams as players.

There's much cleaner play in the beer leagues today than there was 20 years ago too, says Ron MacSpadyen, 52, who referees rec league about 10 hours a week in Toronto. It's likely driven by the increase in boomers wanting to keep fit, have fun and go home to their families at the end of the match.

"They're just not interested in coming out on a Thursday night to get beat up," he says.

The reality is, some refs deserve the flack they get, Mr. Tennant argues.

"I think the level of respect for the referees has probably gone down. But I'd say referees have to earn their respect," he says. "That's the problem - the referees put on a black and white sweater and expect instant respect. You can't get that. You have to know what you're doing."

Refs build respect by being fair and consistent, Mr. MacSpadyen says. And that can be a huge challenge.

"I think where it breaks down is where officials change their standard or don't have a high enough standard game to game and year to year."

Good people skills are crucial too, he says. In his case, it helps that he's been refereeing the same leagues for a while and the players know that he takes no guff.

"As long as you're taking care of it, being fair and talking it out all the time, I think you can avoid some of the stuff that gets heavy," he says. "And that's not to say things don't get heavy in beer league, because they do."

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