The Blind Zebra

Stephen Starzomski is a hockey referee. His job is to officiate a fair game while standing in front of 10,000 people who, for the most part, hate him. He’s been doing this for 20 years and absolutely loves it.

The announcer bellows over the arena’s PA system, calling the players’ names in an exaggerated, booming tone. The crowd roars louder with each name he calls, and when he finishes the crowd is in a frenzy. If you had listened carefully moments earlier through the arena’s excited buzz, the announcer was speaking, but the grandiose tone and excitement were not yet in his voice. He was saying the names of the referees.

One of those referees, Stephen Starzomski, now stands at centre ice waiting for the national anthem to begin. When his name is announced, no one cheers.

The crowd of 9,215 people are on their feet singing O Canada. Starzomski is still at centre ice, silently staring at the scoreboard where a Canadian flag is digitally displayed. Tonight, Starzomski is in Halifax working the battle of Nova Scotia — a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League game between the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles and the Halifax Mooseheads. It’s one of the league’s fiercest rivalries and Starzomski expects the crowd to be loud, fired up and opinionated.

Starzomski’s job is thankless. If not for the referee, the game could descend into anarchy, but his name and photo don’t appear on banners or the front page of the paper. If he’s recognized by a fan, he’s probably getting yelled at or insulted. Yet he comes to every game with a genuine eagerness and passion. Starzomski doesn’t need recognition or fame because “if no one hears my name or notices me,” he says. “That’s the perfect hockey game.”

 

One of Starzomski’s favourite words is “shitbird.” He uses it most often to describe pesky players and hot-headed coaches. He also uses it to describe his own childhood.

Growing up in Antigonish he could never sit still in class and always had something to say. After he began playing hockey at five, he would often make his opinions known to referees. He started getting game misconduct penalties when he was as young as 12.

Fans see Starzomski has an authority figure, someone who makes everyone play by the rules and punishes those who disobey. There’s some irony in his ‘shitbird’ childhood turning into the careers he has now. Not only has the hockey agitator turned into the referee, but the schoolyard troublemaker has become a teacher. Starzomski teaches junior high health and science during the day, wearing black and white stripes and hitting the ice about three nights a week.

At 15, Starzomski’s parents pressured him to get a job. With many friends already refereeing, and a solid working knowledge of the game’s rules, the choice seemed clear. He started refereeing as a way to earn some money. Quickly he found a love for his new part-time job.

As he became increasingly passionate he started to take the job more seriously than other refs his age. Coaches and parents were used to a looser standard of officiating than Starzomski was calling, and made sure he knew it.

At 18, Starzomski was working a semi-final in a tournament for 13 and 14 year-olds in Antigonish. In the second period the captain of the Antigonish team, a well-known troublemaker, checked another player from behind. It wasn’t a particularly vicious hit, but checking from behind carries an automatic game misconduct penalty — kicking the player out of the game and suspending him from the next one, meaning the Antigonish captain would miss the tournament final. The player argued, but Starzomski knew it was the right call.

After the game (which Antigonish won) Starzomski took his shower and put on his shirt and tie. Standing by the side of the rink watching the next game, he saw a short, skinny man powering towards him. It was the kid’s father. He wasn’t happy.

For the next three minutes, 18-year-old Stephen Starzomski was verbally abused by a full-grown adult over a minor hockey game for 13-year-olds. The man, who Starzomski describes as having some sort of “small man syndrome,” was restrained by another fan much larger than both of them. Starzomski said if he and the man were alone, he doesn’t know what would have happened.

“How can parents be like that?” Starzomski says. “He thought I actually cared on a personal level about his son. I was just trying to call a fair game.”

On a frigid Wednesday night, Starzomski is at the Halifax Forum working a university level game between the Saint Mary’s Huskies and Acadia Axemen — two of the top-ranked teams in the country. He walks into the arena through the front doors and nods to a security guard. He smiles towards the older men who hang out at the concession stand before games, just as a Huskies assistant coach runs over to catch up and have a laugh. These are Starzomski’s people, where everyone knows his name. The 34-year-old has been reffing for nearly 20 years, building relationships and rapport with players, coaches and executives the whole time. For him, officiating isn’t just about calling penalties, it’s about building relationships.

As he walks through the Forum’s tunnels he has a swagger that reveals calm and confidence. Starzomski isn’t a very big man. He stands an even 6-00 and weighs just over 150 lb. In the arena he looks bigger, his body language communicating total control. He doesn’t get nervous. He’s never more comfortable than when he’s on the ice.

Dressed in slim black dress pants, a baby blue shirt, black tie and a long black coat, he heads into the referees’ locker room, emerging a few minutes later in a tight grey workout shirt and loose fitting shorts. He joins the other referee and two linesmen also set to work this game in the hall to warm up. Starzomski simply calls them the “boys.” They call him “Star.”

Starzomski and his partner for tonight’s game, Jason Blanchard, toss a frisbee back and forth to get warmed up. In between throws they stretch and do jumping jacks. Meanwhile the two linesmen, John MacDonnell and Brett Boyce, jog up and down the halls, occasionally trying to steal the frisbee or mess with Starzomski and Blanchard. These are some of Starzomski’s closest friends, it makes the job easier when there’s chemistry between the officials. In Starzomski’s words, they’re the third team on the ice.

As the game gets underway, Starzomski follows the action closely while dodging pucks and bodies. He is agile, quick and strong. It’s vital for referees to stay fit, so Starzomski goes to the gym three to five days a week.

When Starzomski is on the ice, his body language shows confidence without cockiness, authority without authoritarianism. He gets what he wants without garnering resentment, he is respected without intimidation and well-liked without becoming a push-over. He has cultivated this presence throughout the span of his career. It’s a fine line to skate. At the same time, he’s having fun. Between whistles he’s laughing with the other officials, chatting with players or just skating around, enjoying being on the ice.

 

Whenever Starzomski gets the chance, he leans back in his recliner and watches an NHL game. When most people watch a hockey game, they watch the players, Starzomski doesn’t. He watches the referees. He looks at how they move, where they’re looking and how they react. While Starzomski doesn’t work in the NHL, he and the refs on TV are all tier six officials — the highest ranking Canadian referees can achieve. As a teenaged referee, you’ll start at tier one. You can reach tiers two and three just by working enough games, but to get beyond that refs have to be selected by scouts, attend training camps and complete intense physical and mental evaluations. Starzomski is one of only six tier six referees in Nova Scotia and only 79 in the country.

To Starzomski’s left hanging from the curtain rod above his living room window are all the referee shirts he uses for games. They can be seen from the street, displayed proudly like trophies or degrees. Starzomski puts reaching tier six ahead of graduating from university as the greatest accomplishment of his life. To reach this level you have to be good, and it opens up a lot of opportunities: Starzomski has worked the World Under-17 Championship, two CIS national championships and the national Jr. “A” championship.

Starzomski says he’s unlikely to ever join those refs in the NHL. He may have had a chance early in his career at 24, but he chose to take a year off to travel, teaching English in Suwon, Korea with his girlfriend at the time. He says he had a great experience there, and has no regrets.

He’s unsure if he ever could have made it to the NHL if he had not left, but was advised by other refs the year off could kill his chances. Competition between referees is intense, and leaving for a year set him too far behind others to catch up. While he says his now ex-girlfriend was more interested in the trip than he was, he says the experience was unforgettable. He points out he made enough to get rid of some student loan debt, so it was a great financial move, adding again he has no regrets about the trip.

Starzomski was in Korea for a year. He arrived home ready to get back on the ice. He regularly worked QMJHL games before he left, but it took more than a year to get back to reffing at that level. Those who advised him against the trip were proving themselves right. He says again how amazing the trip was. So he regrets nothing.

 

Forty-four seconds into the third period at the Halifax Forum, Saint Mary’s forward Stephen Johnston smashes into Acadia forward Boston Leier near centre ice. Starzomski shoots his right arm into the air, and a flurry of frustrated boos rain down from the SMU fans, who make up about half the crowd of 1,000. Starzomski has called a penalty against Johnston, and Acadia is going on the powerplay in a tied game. Starzomski thought it was an obvious penalty. The fans didn’t.

The Huskies managed to kill off the two-minute penalty without allowing a goal, bringing some solace to the anxious crowd. But moments later, Acadia’s Remy Giftopoulis knocks over SMU defencemen Parker Deighan in the middle of the ice. No call. An even louder round of groans and jeers erupt from the SMU fans’ side of the rink. It’s a similar play to the one Starzomski just called against SMU, and the fans recognize it.

“There’s two teams out there!” one man shouts.

The boos are brought to the loudest point of the night seconds later when Acadia’s Boston Leier knocks the puck in to make the game 2-1 Axemen. If Starzomski had called an interference penalty on Giftopoulis, the goal wouldn’t have happened and the game would still be tied.

“They don’t want us to go to nationals!” one woman, seated in the first row above the scorers’ table, yells.

The woman, Cindy McLeod, stands out in the (mostly) docile crowd. She’s wearing a traditional burgundy Huskies jersey, and has even dyed her hair in some places to match. In front of her, on the concrete ledge separating the seats from the scorers’ table, she has five (yes, five) small, white cowbells laid out in a row, alongside three plastic clappers, two plush husky toys, a photo of her own pet husky, Zeke, and a large white SMU flag she waves every time the Huskies score. She says she always sits where she is because both the players and the refs can hear her. Tonight, her voice is hoarse from making herself heard.

“I thought refs were supposed to be impartial,” she yells in Starzomski’s direction, adding “Acadia sucks.”

McLeod, who has been coming to games for more than ten years, is very talkative and makes sure her opinions are known. She hates first place UNB, loves her dog, and is disappointed by the Dalhousie dentistry scandal, but most importantly at the moment, she thinks the refs suck.

Starzomski rarely hears anything individual members of the crowd yell. His focus is stronger than the heckling of a crowd. Though he says he noticed McLeod at games before.

“I admire her passion,” he says. “But I’m not listening.”

 

Starzomski calls them “barns.” The old rinks scattered across rural Nova Scotia, built well over 40 years ago. The kind of places that have wooden bleachers with splinters scattered like landmines, and temperatures so low on some nights you can almost smell the cold. On a chilly night last September, Starzomski was in one of these rinks working a junior level game (under 20-year-olds). He’s too polite to say the name of the rink, but the arena is known for its rowdy fans — on more than one occasion riots have broken out during the town’s Jr. “A” games. Starzomski says of all the rinks he works, he hears the fans most clearly in this one.

During the first period, Starzomski began to hear vulgar, personal insults coming from a male fan in the crowd. A few rows in front of the fan was Starzomski’s girlfriend, Alex, who was uncomfortable hearing a stranger shouting at her boyfriend to go to hell. In what is an exceptional case, Starzomski was bothered by a fan.

In the locker room during the second intermission, Starzomski decided something had to be done. Knowing local police were in the rink, he asked his supervisor to have the abusive fan escorted out of the building. It’s normally not Starzomski’s priority to control the crow;, he usually just ignores them. He feels the fans have paid their money to have fun at the game. If that means yelling at the ref then so be it, as long as they don’t cross a line.

Starzomski returned to the ice for the final period and tried to forget about the irate man. Since ice hockey referees first emerged in the late 1800s, refs have routinely been abused by fans. After a game between Ottawa and Quebec in 1895, a mob attacked the game’s referee, dragging him back to the arena to “persuade” him to change the score. In 1903, during a Stanley Cup final game between Rat Portage (now Kenora) and Ottawa, the ref had to wear a hard hat to protect himself from debris thrown by fans. More recently, amateur referees in British Columbia and Saskatchewan have spoken out against fan abuse, saying they have considered quitting as a result. They’re not alone. There are just over 32,000 referees in Canada, and Hockey Canada estimates it loses around 10,000 per year because of this type of abuse. The turnover rate is even higher when looking at just first-year refs: only 50 per cent go on to a second year.

The fan was watched closely by the police at the start of third period.

“Fuck you, Starzomski!” the fan yelled.

That was it for the fan. The cops took him by the arm and escorted him out of the rink. His two young children left with him.

 

Staying calm is the referee’s greatest virtue. Whether a fan is insulting him personally, a coach is red with anger or he knows he blew a call, Starzomski stays cool.

His mother has always been his calming influence. She supported him through it all, he says. A hockey mom of three boys, she would attend every game whether Starzomski was refereeing or playing. When Starzomski was reffing, she was the only person in the crowd cheering for the refs.

She cheered loudly.

Margaret Starzomski died of brain cancer in 2011. She was sick for the final 18 months, and Starzomski would travel home to Antigonish on weekends to spend time with her and the rest of the family.

Margaret and Larry, Starzomski’s father, were married for 40 years. When Starzomski speaks about his parents, his voice drops to a hush. There’s no more power or authority in his words. Instead, his voice and eyes reveal a melancholy comfort.

“The hardest thing I’ve ever seen is watching your dad lose his best friend. I wouldn’t wish the last three-and-a-half years on anybody.”

As O Canada fades out before every game, Starzomski remains at centre ice, staring up at the scoreboard. He’s thinking of his mother.

“After O Canada at every game, she’s the one that calms me down,” he says. “She’s the last person I think about before the game.”

The final horn sounds at the Halifax-Cape Breton game. The home team, Halifax, won without any drama or controversy. The crowd leaves the building with smiles on their faces. Some talk about how well the Halifax goalie played, others are dreading the snowy walk back to their cars. Starzomski wasn’t yelled at, there were no harsh chants directed at him, his name won’t be in the paper tomorrow. It’s the best he could hope for.

He changes into his shirt, dress pants and tie. He tucks his black and white stripes into his bag. As he leaves the locker room he passes through a crowd of 50 or so boys and girls. They’re all waiting with pens, excited at the chance to get autographs from Moosehead players as they exit the arena. Starzomski passes through the crowd, head down, ready to go home.

“Hey, Mr. Ref,” says one young boy, not even as tall as a hockey net. “Good game.”

Starzomski turns and smiles, surprised the boy recognized him without his uniform. “Thanks, buddy,” he says. Then he walks away from the crowd.

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