Newbie Goes Zebra
When, as a newbie, I was asked to attend a Wednesday practice on skates, I was surprised to say the least. Usually, Wednesdays aren’t attended on skates until minimum skills is passed, and I’d only ever NSO’d on a Wednesday night. My eyebrows raised higher and higher into my helmet as NERD Flanders informed me that he wanted me to strap my skates on for an extra night and try my hand at being a ref. He figured it would be a good idea for us newbies to see how hard the ref’s job is before we pass minimum skills, so we can empathize and understand the game more.
Sounds fairly straightforward, in theory.
What I hadn’t taken into account was just how hard the ref’s jobs are, and how intimidating it would be to be surrounded by all of the post-mins, preparing themselves to scrim, while I stand in a group of zebras explaining my job for the evening. I had been placed as an outside pack ref, and I nodded diligently as Noise Pollution took me through the various fouls and penalties I could expect to see, and more importantly, call. I tried to take it all in; elbows, forearms, back-blocks, track cuts, but how was I expected to watch every player for all of those? If I watched for track cuts I certainly wouldn’t see anyone using their forearms; I have the peripheral vision of a one-eyed goat, and my eyes would be firmly trained on the floor.
I nodded again as the refs gave me a final run-down of hand signals, common penalties and how to properly call a foul, before adding that the hardest part wouldn’t necessarily be spotting the fouls, but calling them. I couldn’t help but shrug this off; I’m a loudmouth and have been told I’m a loudmouth since birth. I doubted that this would be where my voice failed me. So, wriggling my mouth-guard into my mouth with a smile that probably didn’t make me look as confident as I’d hoped, I set off for the outside of the track. It was then that NERD decided to inform me that I shouldn’t wear my mouth-guard, as I wouldn’t be able to shout properly or blow my whistle.
So there I was, with almost three months (in)experience under my belt, stood by the track, my knee pads only knocking together slightly. I stared at the ten skate-clad girls, who were about to come hurtling towards me, with my trusty mouth-guard tucked safely in my helmet, convinced that a concussion or drastic loss of teeth was imminent. One long whistle. No pack. Two shorter whistles. I took a deep breath as the girls set off, following them around the arc of the track, attempting to keep pace whilst watching their shoulder checks for any forearm or elbow usage.
Eight jams later and I could list at least six fouls. An elbow here, an arm there, a black cut track, a white back-block. Had I called any of them? Not a single one. I’m ashamed to say that the refs were right, and after 18 years of being called a chatter-box, suddenly I was mute. Between every few jams I’d return to the inside of the track, only to hang my head in shame as every ref asked if I’d called anything yet. The minutes ticked away as jam after jam flew by me, spotting the occasional foul, swallowing the lump in my throat as I prepared to shout, until a knot in my stomach forced me to close my mouth again and skate back round the track to my starting position, blushing self-consciously and hoping no one had noticed my lack of a call.
It was with only minutes left of practice when Swiss Army Mike skated over to me with an expectant look on his face. “Have you called anything yet?” I averted my eyes and shook my head once again, “Well this is the last jam now, last chance.” Sighing heavily, I prepared myself mentally and physically. This would be the one. I’d already promised myself that at the start of every other jam, but this was my last chance to prove I could do it and I had nothing to lose. Time to stop caring about calling something wrong and ending the night with a derby girl’s fist-shaped hole in my face, to stop worrying I would blow the whistle and everyone would stop to stare at me, and time to stop convincing myself that I would open my mouth to confidently call a penalty and would instead sound like a strangled cat.
The whistles blew, the girls set off and I followed them round the track. I spotted an elbow being shoved into a ribcage. This was it. I mustered my confidence, and raised my whistle. “WHITE, 55, ELBOWS!”
I managed to actually call it; my voice came out loud and clear, I had used the correct gesture, no-one was staring at me, and most importantly, there wasn’t a fist-shaped hole in my face. Grinning proudly, I returned to my starting position and followed the rest of the penalty-less jam until it was called off a few moments later. I turned to Mike triumphantly as he skated over, “I finally did it!” I beamed. But I don’t think I’ll ever forget his apologetic smile, “Yeah you did. Although, remember you’re not supposed to blow the whistle unless it’s a major.”
It seems power may have gone to my head on that one.
But I’ll tell you one thing, love your refs. Because being a zebra really is harder than it looks.