ABU DHABI // In a sport where trading barbs and punches is commonplace, it takes someone with courage, control and no small amount of fortitude to step in the middle and break it up.
But that is what Joy Johnston, a Englishwoman, has done throughout a 20-year career that can already count almost 15 of them as an ice hockey referee. She is an old hand at dealing with the tense confrontations that arise on the rink, having started her career officiating her male counterparts in her homeland at the age of 16.
Johnston, 31, was appointed the Emirates Hockey League’s chief of games officials on a 12-month contract last year having come highly recommended by the International Ice Hockey Federation.
“We wanted to develop our officiating system and get more local referees to officiate our games,” said Mohammed Aref Al Jachi, sports director of the UAE Ice Sports Federation.
“We discussed this with the IIHF and requested them to recommend someone who had the experience to handle our referees department, who can officiate in our league and run the development programme of developing the game officials.
“There were many candidates, but having seen her CV, we were quite impressed. At that time, we didn’t know we were about to employ a woman.”
Johnston said she had no idea the UAE had a league when she visited with her friends on holiday last year. “At first, it sounded crazy. The UAE is known for desert, it’s not known for ice. But for me, it was like ‘wow, it’s a great opportunity for me to give something back’,” she said.
“I had been involved in the sport that has given so much to me for over 20 years and I would love to see other people get the same from the sport, so this is a good opportunity for me.”
Johnston, who is married to a Canadian banker, arrived in September and has overseen three pre-season clinics for 17 local officials, including three Emiratis, with focus on education-development programmes and improving the standard of refereeing in the EHL. A three-day seminar was arranged in Al Ain for UAE nationals who wish to learn how to referee. The clinics have already proved a success, Al Jachi said.
“We had three clinics for our league officials, updating the rules and improving on the physical fitness,” he said.
“So from both the development side and the EHL, we have had overall improvement. Ali Kaddas was already officiating and we now have Yahya Al Junaibi as the second local officiating in the EHL.
“We expect players from past and present, and some youth players, around 30, to get enrolled for this workshop. We hope we can count around 10 to come through this workshop to referee the EHL games in the future.”
Johnston was 10 when she took up skating and was a regular visitor to her local ice rink with her father. It was hockey, rather than figure skating, that caught her attention, and she signed up for her local team. She said a dearth of officials for her own games prompted her father to do something about it.
“When we went for our games, no one turned up to referee. So my dad, who was an active parent and wanted to make sure we could play, took the referee course and started refereeing the games for us,” Johnston said.
“And then, after my game, he had to referee the next game and the next game, so I had to wait for him. So he said ‘Hey, why don’t you take the referee course and we can referee together? And then I know where you are while I’m refereeing.’ So I said ‘OK’ and I took the referee course.
“I started to referee and as I started to get a little bit older, I was playing in the boys’ league and they became too strong, so I started to referee more and more, and that was it, my referee career started.”
When she was 16 Johnston began officiating in the third division of the men’s professional league. At 18 she was calling the shots in the Super League, the UK’s top tier. She says the high point of her career was taking charge of the women’s gold-medal game between Canada and the USA at the Sochi Winter Olympics.
As the first woman in the country to hold the position, Johnston said the response to her appointment has been encouraging.
“I’ve had some very positive responses from everyone and my experience brings a lot to the UAE. So whether I’m a woman or not is not the question.”
For the majority of players in the EHL it was the first time they had crossed paths with a female referee.
Ron Murphy, the Dubai Mighty Camels captain, said at first it was strange being refereed by a woman, but that he soon realised there was nothing he had said or done on the ice that she had not encountered before. He said he was fine with a female head referee as long as she did a professional job.
“It is the first time I personally have dealt with a female ref and at first I was careful what I said around Joy, but I quickly realised she has seen and heard a lot in her years of refereeing,” said Murphy, a Canadian.
“Joy has brought an element of professionalism to the league that was lacking in the referee department.”
Reducing the number of fights in the EHL was a priority for Al Jachi. He says Johnston’s appointment has had an impact in reducing the number of scuffles in the league, which runs from September to May.
“She has cut down that by about 75 per cent,” he said.
“We don’t want the people to see violence in our league.
“We can now see the game officials taking stricter actions against rough play, particularly the 10-minute misconduct penalty.
“All EHL matches are now recorded and every aspect of the game, including the refereeing, is evaluated by a committee. This was her plan, which we didn’t do previously.”
Not everyone agrees with Johnston’s strict enforcement of the laws, though.
“I had many issues with her this year, but I think a lot of players did, initially,” Murphy said.
“Her style of refereeing was new to a lot of guys and we found out early that she likes to give 10s. We had several guys on our team receive their first ever misconduct penalty.”
When asked if the men she officiates intimidate her, Johnston grinned. “They might try, but they don’t win.”
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