As interest and participation numbers in field hockey grow, more playing and development opportunities are being introduced to players across the country. While playing elite hockey is a goal for many, umpiring is another avenue that is sometimes left untouched. Though it may appear daunting to some, the role has changed not only the lives of those who umpire, but also the pace and shape of the sport itself.
Lelia Sacre was only three weeks old in a photograph where she is pictured being held in the background of an international field hockey match — one her dad was playing in. Born into a hockey family, it’s not a cliché to say that the sport was in her blood from birth: Sacre’s mother played at San Diego State before coaching while her father starred on both the Canadian junior and senior national teams. While the urge to quit came up on several occasions, it was through her parents’ encouragement that she stayed. Eventually, Sacre saw an improvement in her skills, enough to justify her place in the game.
During her adolescent years, Sacre played for a variety of clubs and provincial teams before representing Canada at the 2005 Junior World Cup. Around the same time, she started umpiring on the side for a bit of pocket money and didn’t think much of it until Alan Waterman and Madge Johnson approached her during a national championship.
“They both said, ‘Hey, have you thought about taking [umpiring] seriously?’ and I laughed nervously and said no,” Sacre described. “They told me it was there if I wanted it because they saw something [in me].”
Like many players, Sacre had the persistent goal of making the national team — which she achieved — but it wasn’t until university when she realized her body wasn’t going to be able to hold it. Her dream of playing internationally was over, but the desire to represent Canada was still there.
“That’s when I started to take everything more seriously,” she said. “I got appointed to the junior touring squad in 2012 and…that really exposed me to different colleagues and different styles of hockey. That’s when I knew it was my new pathway.”
Megan Robertson was similarly influenced by her parents at a young age, particularly by her mother who has been involved in nearly every aspect of the sport as a player, coach, official and administrator. It was her who first encouraged Robertson to become a certified umpire. Since then, Robertson has gone on to officiate at several international tournaments, namely the last two Pan American Games in 2015 and 2019, and the 2018 Hockey Series Open.
“Each tournament is an important opportunity to represent yourself and your country,” Robertson said. “Being in downtown Toronto [during the 2015 Pan Am Games] was fantastic. I’ve had the good fortune to umpire at the University of Toronto venue a number of times…and it was a privilege to have a ‘home’ Games and share the experience with my parents, my hockey community, and so many Canadians.”
She recalls Lima 2019 as an important competition for her after facing several setbacks that made her question her future, including a knee injury and major illness. Having overcome that turbulent time, Robertson shows a deep appreciation for her experiences around the world and the hockey family she’s grown along the way.
“All of us are part of the hockey family.”
“I have been so fortunate to experience the different cultures of hockey,” she said. “The excitement of little girls in Argentina screaming for Aymar, the emotion of the Korean women winning the Asian Games in Incheon and securing their trip to the Olympics, and the dedication of athletes, parents, and volunteers shoveling the snow from Hawkings Field in Calgary so that we could start our games. All of us are part of the hockey family.”
Umpiring has changed tremendously over the last decade with technology playing a new role in determining correct calls and leaving little room for errors. Athletes are noticeably faster and more dynamic — forcing umpires to approach the game differently in terms of positioning and anticipation.
Sacre recalls experiencing her first video referral at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and describes it as a ‘terrifying’ moment, attributed to her hopes of getting the call right.
“It’s a whirlwind of emotions,” Sacre said. “[Umpires] are there to facilitate the game, not be the showcase. Sometimes umpires forget that they’re there to bring the best out of players, and spectators forget that we’re all human and we make mistakes too. We’re all doing our best because we enjoy it.”
Sacre and Robertson both agree that video reviews and radios have made the game better in many ways. “We want to make the correct decisions for players and for the game and it shows how we can work as a team of officials to get things right,” added Robertson.
Umpires without a doubt play a highly important role in hockey, and with each passing opportunity, the goal is to hone in on existing skills and build upon others. With the pandemic keeping everybody off the field temporarily, there comes many chances for those wanting to pursue an officiating pathway through online methods.
An alternative to playing, umpiring serves as a rewarding way to stay within the sport as games become more competitive and passionate from start to finish.
“We really want to give back and have young umpires coming through saying, ‘This is the pathway and it will be challenging, but it is so worth it’,” Sacre explained. “You appreciate every opportunity that you get that much more because you know how much you’ve had to work for.”
As for advice for up-and-coming umpires and officials, Robertson wants to push individuals to dream big, yet remain truthful in the process.
“Always be yourself. Hockey is an amazing part of life. Finding how it fits with the different goals that you have and how it can push you to be your best will be different for everyone. Listen, learn, and try to help others be their best too.”
Ultimately, by doing what they do, the goal is to inspire more people to pick up the whistle and put on a headset. Behind every yellow shirt on the pitch is the heart and soul of somebody who genuinely loves the sport, and an entire community that backs them.
If you want to get involved as an umpire or official, please visit our Resources tab on our Team of Teams hub. If you would like to become a general volunteer, visit our Volunteer Opportunities page. Stay tuned for more ways to join our team!
Happy Officials and Umpires Week!