More MS news articles for Oct 2001

Ref brings fresh perspective

Tuesday, October 9, 2001
By MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

There aren't many referees who don't, at one time or another, complain about the difficulties of refereeing.

But none face the difficulties London's Karen Blachford will.

Blachford is Canada's first paraplegic hockey referee.

Of course Blachford doesn't look at them as difficulties. They are merely challenges she will deal with as they come up. And like most challenges she faces, she will probably look them squarely in the eye and stare them down.

In August, at the Canadian School of Hockey Officiating, Blachford obtained her Level 2 certificate, enabling her to officiate at the minor hockey level.

Blachford, who has multiple sclerosis and is confined to a wheelchair, referees from a sledge. It's a sled-like apparatus with runners that Blachford sits on with her ankles taped together. She maneouvres it with her arms and two sticks.

"It's a different perspective from where I sit," Blachford said. "You see all these legs. You follow the play and you look up to make a call. All of a sudden you are looking at someone hooking at this angle and think, 'Is it hooking?' An able-bodied referee is looking at the play from a different angle."

It has been a crazy month for Blachford. From the moment she graduated, she became the focus of attention for the media.

"I couldn't figure out why it was such a big deal," Blachford said. "I also realized that now that it's happened, I have to step up to the plate and do it."

She's done interviews with several television stations and SportsNet plans on including her in a profile of women referees. She was also interviewed on the ABC television network, but she got bumped by the Gary Condit, Connie Chung interview. They plan a followup story though.

By then, Blachford will have a better idea of what her officiating career will entail. Her first big assignment will be a charity game in Whitby on Oct. 20 between the National Hockey League Oldtimers and the Canadian Amputee national hockey team.

She's in contact with London's minor hockey associations and soon will find out about doing their games.

"I'll never be able to skate as fast as the average able-bodied ref," she said. "As you get into the older ages, the players are bigger and faster. I don't think I want to referee kids beyond the age of 10."

This is still a work in progress. There are so many obstacles. For instance, since Blachford works so close to the ice, she wears a pair of hockey gloves. Sponsors gave her a new pair for the officials school but she found out they were too stiff to pick up the puck.

"That was embarrassing," she said. "Kids who were playing had to pick up the puck and hand it too me. I'm now looking at something like broomball gloves."

She also needs to find a modified pair of shoulder pads and find some way to signify a delayed penalty. Most referees would be able to hold their arm up but with two sticks to maneovre the sledge, it's difficult to raise one's arm.

Then there's the sledge.

"Referees stand up. They don't take up much room," said Blachford. "Someone described the sledge as a big, long skate. I'm sure I'm going to get caught out of position and some kids are going to fall on me but I'll learn."

Blachford plays sledge hockey, coaches a sledge hockey team and works part-time at the University of Western Ontario.

With all of that on her plate, why add the difficult job of refereeing?

"We have able-bodied refs in sledge hockey and a lot of stuff wasn't getting called," Blachford said, and since she has gone through several difficult situations as a player, she came to believe that sledge hockey players who commit offences should be punished. Who better than someone who understands the game?

Blachford has had a lot of support. NHL referee Don Van Massenhoven has sponsored her referee's sweater, John Stevens of Stevens Sportswear in Strathroy made her custom referee pants.

But she also knows she'll be under a microscope.

"I know it will be a challenge. I'm a woman and I'm in a wheelchair."

She's also a referee and darn if she isn't talking like one.

"I know I'll be challenged. My goal is to know the Canadian Hockey Association rulebook cover-to-cover. It's my bible. That will be my strength. They won't be able to challenge me on that."