6 Leadership Lessons from Hockey Refereeing


Prepping for 2023 (1)

This month we're discussing a few core approaches that we can use to prepare for next year.


It’s that time of year—ice hockey is in full swing for the next six months.

This sport runs deep in my family. When my son was young, he wanted to be an NHL player—either that or work with koalas (not sure which was more likely). My significant other is an NCAA hockey official and has been for 40 years. Even after four decades, he has not hung up his skates because he loves this game so much.

Over the years, we have talked about what he has learned from so much time on the ice. I believe all we need to know for good leadership is right there in that officiating experience.

Here are the six things you need to know to be a good hockey official—and to be an extraordinary leader:

  1. Remember, this should be fun—it’s a game. In the big scheme of things, hockey is supposed to be challenging, rewarding, and fun. Work should be the same! You should enjoy what you do and have some fun at it. If you don’t enjoy it, your team on the ice won’t either.
  2. Keep your calm. In tough situations, when things get amped up and everyone may be upset or yelling, you have to be the one who brings it down a notch. As my partner says calmly when a coach is screaming at him, “All I need to know is who you are going to put in the box.” Leadership is about game management – managing the overall system and all the players in it. If you get too caught up in one dramatic moment, you will likely forget the overall goal: to hold space for the game and everyone who is part of it.
  3. Call with confidence—even the gray areas. Hockey (and life) is not always black and white. My partner says 85% of calls will go the same way, no matter who is officiating. But of the remaining decisions, 10 percent will be split one way or the other. The remaining 5 percent are truly in the gray, and anyone could argue over those. (Did that player really trip the other one?) As a leader, you will have to make calls that you are not 100% certain about. But even if you don’t know for sure, you must make the best decision with the information you have, call with confidence, and sell that call.
  4. Be consistent. Decisions you make early in a game will be precedents for the remaining periods – and for other games in the season. An “elbow” has to be an “elbow,” no matter what team is on the ice. It’s important to be consistent no matter what day it is. The coach of Middlebury College once said he loved having my partner on his ice because “I always know what I’m going to get from you.”
  5. The other rule book is common sense. There are going to be times when you don’t know what to do, when you are stuck and not sure what guideline to follow. In those cases, pull out your common-sense rule book. It will never fail you.
  6. Finally, it’s not about you. You will be the best official (and an outstanding leader) if the game ends and no one notices you at all. Ideally, the referees fade in the background, and the team and the play is at the forefront. The officials should skate away, pack up their stuff, and go home. All of the glory and success goes to the players – the ones on the ice. Remember, it’s not about you; it’s about the organization and the people that you lead.

As you look at your upcoming season, reflect on your bench strength, and study your competition, we hope you find these guidelines helpful in managing your team and making key decisions. The stakes certainly can be high. As goalie Jacques Plante said, “How would you like a job where every time you make a mistake, a big red light goes on and 18,000 people boo?”

That’s the fun in leadership.

Need to hone some aspects of your leadership or strengthen your team? DBD Group offers executive coaching and support for team/culture building. Reach out here for more information.

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Posted by Kellie Wardman
Kellie Wardman

Written by Kellie Wardman

Kellie Wardman, PCC, CPCC, has worked in the non-profit sector for 20 years, serving as a consultant and executive coach for a wide range of innovative and impactful leaders and organizations. She has provided clients with comprehensive support in a wide range of disciplines, including strategic planning, board development and governance, facilitating partnerships and collaborations, and capital development.

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