The president of Hockey Outaouais is warning spectators, staff and players to treat referees with respect, or risk facing the consequences.
In an open letter released Wednesday, Pierre Montreuil made it clear that "severe sanctions" will be taken against individuals, and teams may be expelled from the playoffs, if abuse toward referees continues.
"Let's remember that even top referees sometimes make mistakes," Montreuil wrote in the letter in French.
The warning comes just weeks after a 13-year-old referee was harassed by parents from a visiting team in a regional tournament, Outaouais regional chief referee Mark Loyer told CBC.
"When the referee left the ice, that's when everything escalated," he said.
Mark Loyer, the Outaouais regional chief referee, said he hopes the threat of expelling teams from playoffs will improve behaviour toward referees. (Radio-Canada)
"The parents went almost up to the dressing room to curse him a lot again, and yell at the referee."
In a separate incident, Loyer said a coach was suspended after yelling at 13-year-old and 14-year-old referees during a game.
Montreuil emphasized that referees are needed for the "sustainability of [hockey as a sport]."
The region has faced a severe shortage of referees in recent years due to abuse, Loyer said.
"They just say, 'Listen, I'm going to go work at McDonald's or Tim Horton's [because] at least there ... if I get yelled at, well then somebody's going to actually defend me or help me out,'" he said.
"But on the ice, they're alone."
Loyer said the lack of referees has forced those who remain to work overtime, leading to mental and physical exhaustion that can impact their performance.
If a ref has to oversee six games in one day, for example, they're not going to call the sixth game as well as their first, he said.
Behaviour worse during tournaments, playoffs
Instances of abuse happen regularly, but they tend to occur more often ahead of playoffs and during tournaments, said Marc Raymond, president of L'Association de hockey féminin de la Vallée de la Gatineau (AHFVG) — a league affiliated with Hockey Outaouais — in a statement to CBC.
"After the Christmas holidays, this is the last hockey stretch before the playoffs," Raymond explained.
"Tension and competitiveness during a game go up a notch."
"When they're going for a championship, that's when we see ... the parents start getting a bit more wild, in a sense."
For Raymond, the letter is a reminder to stay respectful, and that "it's only a game." He shared it on the AHFVG site.
Andrée East, a spokesperson for Gatineau police, echoed the reminder.
Gatineau police spokesperson Andrée East said disrespectful behaviour can escalate and may result in calls to the police. (Radio Canada)
According to East, police may be called to intervene when rude behaviour escalates to threats of physical harm.
"Just like you won't [threaten] someone at work or you won't assault someone on the street, you can't have those behaviours at the arena," she said.
"Even though you are really into the game, you want your child to succeed — you have to respect the law."
'Awareness is essential'
Sylvain Croteau, general director of Sport'Aide, a Quebec non-profit that supports young athletes, said he's not sure sanctions are the best way to avoid bad spectator behaviour toward referees.
"When we opt for drastic solutions like this, we miss an opportunity to educate, raise awareness and change behaviour," he told Radio-Canada in French.
Instead, Crouteau believes education and behaviour-changing initiatives like incorporating body cameras to referee uniforms could make a bigger difference in the long-run.
"Awareness is essential," he said.
Loyer is more optimistic that a healthy fear of consequences will improve the situation for referees.
"I think people are going to actually calm down. They don't want their team to be eliminated because of that parent that yelled or the coach that yelled ... so on that side, I think it's going to help," he said.