The Massachusetts youth hockey season has barely begun, and already things are getting rough.

A parent angry about a call tried to get on the ice to go after a referee. Another jumped into the scorer’s box to berate a player for the other team. And a referee left one U8 game under police escort to protect him from angry parents. For those new to youth hockey, U8 means all the kids playing are younger than 8 years old. You would think parents would be mortified, but just the opposite is happening.

Mass Hockey, which oversees the sport in the Bay State, says there are 900 fewer referees now than before the sport shut down at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. And the organization is pretty sure it knows why.

“Our initial investigation has determined that the biggest reason cited is the abuse (referees) receive from coaches, parents and players,” the organization wrote in an email to its members. “The constant harassment over calls over the split-second decisions they are making on the ice has taken its toll.”

Who can blame referees – who have as much love for the sport as players and coaches – for not wanting to put up with the abuse for $45 to $85 a game?

“Our officials are everyday people – just like our parents – who have real jobs but try to work a side job to help our kids play a game, earn a little extra income and give back to the game,” Mass Hockey wrote in its email. In essence, they are our neighbors.

Mass Hockey and USA Hockey have a “zero tolerance” policy toward harassment, and say players, coaches and spectators can be banned from future games for acting out. It hasn’t worked.

“It’s getting worse,” says Wayne Silva, a veteran referee and coordinator who officiated his first game at 14. Parents invest a lot of money in the sport and often have trouble handling themselves when the dreams they project onto their kids don’t come true.

Officials make an easy target, says Silva, a Salem fire lieutenant who has been injured far more in his weekends on the ice than during his day job, blowing out a shoulder and a knee and having teeth knocked out by an errant stick. It takes a love for the game to keep coming back. But, Silva notes, referees sidelined when the sport was shut down by COVID-19 began enjoying their free weekends. They’re in no hurry to return for $50 and a rash of abuse.

Silva suspects things won’t change until a lack of referees forces so many games to be canceled that parents realize they’re spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars on their kids’ sport for no reason.

“It will change,” he said, “when the parents show up at the rink and the lights are off because there’s no one there to referee.”

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