After 46 years, James Mays is hanging up the zebra stripes for good.
The Prince Albert resident has officiated 2,810 games during his lifetime. He’s reffed minor hockey, senior hockey, SJHL, WHL and CIS games. He’s travelled across the country and met thousands of people.
That long career as a referee ended Sunday night at a Pee Wee Tier 2 game between the Shellbrook Elks and Gene’s Sports Canadians.
Mays said after 46 years, it was time.
“I’ve done a lot of games. It was fun for a while, but now, I get just as much enjoyment out of going to the rink and supervising,” he said.
“If I’m on the ice, that means some young kid isn’t.”
For his last game, Mays got to referee amongst a few of the older officials, and had his youngest son wearing the orange bands of a referee by his side.
“It was good, it was fun, my youngest son was out there on the ice with me, so that was good, especially with the last game.”
Mays shifted towards officiating when he realized he needed to change course if he wanted to stay in hockey.
“I realized early on that I wasn’t going to be much of a player,” he said.
He worked in the WHL for seven or eight years, and point reffed Saskatchewan Junior and CIS level hockey for almost 20.
“I did my share of good games, and lots of provincial finals,” Mays said.
“I met a lot of people.”
Since then, he got into the administrative side. In addition to serving as technical director for Prince Albert Minor Hockey Association, Mays works with Hockey Canada and the Saskatchewan Hockey Association on the administrative side, travelling across the country to work as a supervisor and instructor of coaches and officials.
He’s gained some insight into that side of the game over that time.
“I always thought you needed to be a good referee, you needed to be a player,” he said.
“You have that feel for the game, that well-rounded aspect. You knew what the players were going through, and what they were thinking.”
That’s one of the reasons he’s been pleased to see three Prince Albert Raiders – Brayden Pachal, Max Martin and Kody McDonald spend some time refereeing in Prince Albert. It gives them something fun to do and lets them spend more time out at the rink.
Engaging younger referees is important, he said, because that’s what helps grow the officiating corps.
“Eleven and 12-year-olds get into it because it’s fun. They just want to be out on the ice, which is great. Once the kids get a little bit older, that’s when we have a hard time keeping them,” he said.
“But I always tell them – this is the best part-time job you will have in your life. They can make a little money, they’re out on the ice having fun and for the most part, they get to set their own hours. There aren’t many jobs in the world you’re going to find where you’re going to be able to do that. Once we get them to 19 or 20-year-old, we’ve got them hooked.”
Other older referees help with that. They also help to build younger referees’ confidence in the face of unruly parents or coaches who might go over the line of what’s acceptable.
During his long career, Mays has seen Prince Albert get much better in that regard.
Our senior group of referees does such a great job of helping out the young guys,” he said.
“You’ll see guys that are 40 years old out on the ice with some 10 or 11-year-olds and help out the kids. That goes a long way because it gives the kids some confidence, and then when the parents and coaches see an adult out there, they’re a little less apt to say something or raise their voices. That gives them a little bit of confidence. Once they have that, they’re on their way.”
It’s made a difference. About eight years ago, Mays said, the city was facing a referee shortage. They were down to about 50, and looking at cancelling some games. But the hockey community came together, and since then, they have more than doubled the number of referees. There are now 110 working in the city. Impressive, since in Saskatoon, there are only about 240.
“We’re doing pretty well here,” Mays said.
It bodes well for the future too. While Mays is retiring as a ref, he is still staying on with his other roles in local organizations and beyond. He also still serves as a video review judge at Raider games. While no longer officiating, Mays couldn’t imagine ever fully leaving the game he loves.
“The game of hockey — one old veteran once told me the game of hockey never lets good people go.”
Sunday night, as the clock wound down on Mays’ last time out as a referee, the coaches and other officials had some fun with the veteran official. As one team called a timeout, the coach came out with a stick, miming like he was blind — and headed in Mays’ direction. It was a part of the antics of the night, as coaches, officials and players bid adieu to the long-serving referee.
“It’s been fun,” Mays said as he looked back on his career.
“I got no regrets. That’s the best thing.
“It was good to go out and have one last game. I remember, well I guess it was 46 years ago, when my dad begged me on to start reffin…’”
Mays trailed off.
“Yeah. He was always my biggest supporter. Forty-six years later — thanks.