In sports, the limelight falls on players and coaches, but there’s another vital role less celebrated — that of the officiator. John Hall, a retired E.H.S. professional from Kitimat, has spent over two decades as a umpire and referee, navigating the challenging yet rewarding realms of softball and hockey.
In his memoir, Keep the car door open and the engine running, Hall reveals the unseen challenges and triumphs of the role he ended in 2004. It’s is a compelling blend of personal recollections and broader reflections on the culture of sports, offering an insightful glimpse into the life of an individual who played a pivotal role in the games he loved.
“In high school, I knew I was going to write a book one day. Finding something to write about, and when to do it, was the challenge. Then in the ’90s I was full-in to my career with softball and hockey, and I said, ‘this is what I need to write about,” Hall says.
“I used to threaten all the employers, saying I was going to write a book and name names,” he adds with a laugh. “No, I didn’t do that.”
What he did do, was write a memoir recounting his rise as an umpire, culminating with a prestigious stint at a national championship in 1995 and his notable induction into Softball Canada’s Canadian Indicator Club in 2001, a highly regarded recognition of service and achievements. In part it notes his 15-year contribution to teaching clinics and umpiring at many levels, including two Western Canadian championships, two Canadian native championships and five provincial championships.
Hall’s foray into officiating began somewhat accidentally. When he arrived in Kitimat in 1980, it was too late to join the softball season as a player. He was then asked to help out with umpiring. This unexpected opportunity led him to discover his passion for officiating. He soon signed up for an umpiring clinic and set a goal to one day officiate a national championship.
His success with a long career is all the more notable due to his geographic isolation in the Northwest, with a limited amount of games, the quality of those games, and the long distance between himself and the decision makers in large centres.
He left umpiring in 2004 as opportunities to officiate at a high level began to decrease and he shifted his focus to coaching his daughter’s team.
While Hall’s experiences in softball umpiring showcased his dedication and skill, his journey into the world of hockey refereeing opened up a different set of challenges and experiences, revealing the stark contrasts between the two sports.
Like umpiring, he started refereeing because he was asked. Normally a goaltender, he dropped his player status and enrolled in more clinics. Over the years, he amassed a significant amount of knowledge but the experience, overall, let him down.
“Referees are disposable. The culture in hockey is not very good. The abuse that hockey referees are expected to take is just crazy. It’s mostly verbal abuse, but I’ve been tripped up a few times. I’ve been spit at and pushed. When people would find out I was a hockey official, they’d say so many times over the years, ‘you must really like abuse.” Well, I don’t, but you seem to accept that as part of the sport.”
In 2004, Hall left hockey, both for physical reasons and due to the emotional toll. He now avoids hockey in all forms, even as a spectator, a decision underscored by his conversations with other referees.
”I know I’m not alone. Again, it’s the culture — it’s how people treat other people in that world. Even in the rec league, it’s supposed to be for fun but you’d think these guys were in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup. They’ll do things to each other they’d never do outside the rink. It’s crazy.
Hall’s observations come at a time when the culture of hockey is routinely scrutinized. Last June, the province allocated $7.8 million to establish an independent mechanism for managing complaints in sports, aiming to ensure a safer environment. This follows the adoption of the B.C. Universal Code of Conduct by accredited sports organizations and funding allocations to PlaySafe BC, focusing on prevention, education, and awareness in amateur sports.
While measures like this are well intended, Hall doesn’t see it changing the game anytime soon.
“Hockey officials are treated like a third team. So many coaches don’t feel they’re just playing against another team, but they were competing against the officials too. Its unfortunate, because officials are a nucleus within the game. Not separate entities like the teams. After 18 years, you do your last game and you come out of the changing room expecting someone will shake your hand and just thank you, but instead they want to lynch you.”
Officials in all sports are becoming increasingly scarce, Hall notes, often deterred by such negative treatment. He advocates for patience with new referees, emphasizing the damage caused when they are driven away by undue pressure and criticism.
Now enjoying a quieter retirement in Kitimat with his wife, Coleen, Hall divides his time between family, reading, fishing, and indulging in his love for history. His legacy remains a rich narrative of dedication and resilience for the sports he helped oversee.