(Article written & produced by Jamie Neugebauer. Star Egg is the proud sponsor of all SJHL officials this season!)
There is no way to adequately encapsulate Brad Howard’s importance to the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
Howard, the league’s ‘Senior Manager of Player Safety and Standard of Play’, is in charge of all league officials, as well as player safety, and in both of those areas has to ensure the SJHL is in compliance with Saskatchewan Hockey’s and Hockey Canada’s specific guidelines.
There is certainly a lot on the plate of the Regina native, but to him, it’s all worth it.
“I guess I could say I am in it because I just love the game of hockey,” Howard says, “and to do what I do is a great way to stay in it.
“I could have played junior hockey myself, but I didn’t want to move away from home, so at 18 I got the opportunity to be an official and decided to stay home. I quite honestly feel blessed to have been involved with the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and the Western Hockey League for the better part of 43 years now. It is a tough business, but it is so rewarding.”
As the chief overseer and developer of all the referees and lines people in the league, Howard is often in the middle of disagreements between any configuration of league-interested parties, be it coaches, officials, players, or anyone else.
As a former player, a long-time Saskatchewan junior and WHL official, and a parent, he is uniquely situated to understand all sides.
“At times it’s pretty difficult, quite honestly, because you know, we want to be honest, but everybody’s human and everyone’s going to make mistakes,” he says.
“I always tell everyone, perfection probably won’t happen, but we’re striving for excellence. So, sometimes that’s a fine balance. We want the games played fairly, we don’t want one team (getting more than their fair share of tight calls) or that sort of thing, but with that said, it can be difficult at times. You know, I’ve told some of the coaches, you in your dressing room, you have to support your guys, and I have to support mine, but I’m always honest too. So, if mistakes happen, we work with our officials to correct it. We do lots of video work and have a lot of conversations. We want to be approachable to everybody, and ultimately our goal is to provide the best officiating we can.”
The symmetry of education and sports in the lives of his family is remarkable.
Outside of hockey Howard is a retired educator, who moved around to various Principal and Vice Principal jobs for years before ending his career at Regina’s Winston Knoll Collegiate. His wife, Karen, is also a teacher part-time, but spends most of her time as a world-class figure skating official who has represented Canada internationally at Olympics and numerous World Championships.
Their oldest daughter Kabree is a basketball coach with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies, but is also a high school math teacher in Saskatoon, and their youngest Kylee is getting into basketball officiating while teaching Grade 2 and 3 in Regina.
“Yeah, we have a pretty interesting family, to be honest,” Brad says with a laugh.
“I am super proud of what we all do as a family. Especially with my wife, we understand each other and our passions. So that’s the thing, there’s never an issue about scheduling or why we have to go wherever we do. We just make it work as a family. Her trips are usually a little longer than mine, but I understand that she’s just as passionate about judging figure skating as I am about officiating hockey. Now that the kids are older it’s a lot easier, but when they were younger, we made sure at least one of us was always around.”
“Karen is just so passionate and committed to what she does,” he continues.
“Yeah, she gets to travel and do all these glamorous events, but I tell people all the time it’s all the hard work that she does behind the scenes that are the most impressive to me about her career. I am incredibly proud of her and her accomplishments. Our businesses are different, but they’re also the same. Maybe their coaches don’t chase them down after a meet, so maybe that’s a bit different, but she has such a calm demeanour. She has such a professional attitude, and I know I could always take a bit more of that from her when things get a little tough and tight around when I’m trying to work with people. The other thing is her absolute professional dedication to what she does, and really that’s why she gets all those opportunities.”
While Karen’s resume is jaw dropping, Brad’s is nothing to sniff at either.
He was three times the referee supervisor at Hockey Canada’s World Under-17 Challenge, three times at the various permeations of the national Junior A championship, once at the World Junior A Challenge, and once at the Canadian University national championship.
He received the Hockey Canada Officiating Award for National Contribution to Officiating in 2015, Hockey Saskatchewan’s Most Deserving Official Award in 2021, and is a part of the Saskatchewan Officiating Development Model, “which tracks and provides support to officials through the provincial leagues to reach their full potential, hopefully to the Jr level.”
His passion for the game and for the SJHL is incredibly high, and he notes that while some say they miss ‘the way hockey used to be’, he does not, and that the rules in place to help that high-octane style exist are doing their job well.
“I love watching the skill of the kids now,” he says.
“I love our product. I love the speed and how skilled they are and I find it fun to just watch some of these guys in our league. There was a period of time where there was so much hooking and holding and grinding away, and now you see these kids flying around and making incredible plays, and the advances we’ve made in the rulebook, I just see them as really positive quite honestly.”
Howard’s role has taken all sorts of twists and turns lately with the Covid-19 pandemic, the gradual implementation of mandatory mouth, neck and facial protection for players and officials, and many other difficult decisions and situations passed across his desk.
When it became clear that Bill Chow was stepping down as president in the 2021-2022 season, Brad strongly considered doing so as well; but at the urging of in-coming commissioner Kyle McIntyre, he reconsidered, and all in the league ought to be very grateful that he did.
“A few years ago, I was tired and I was going to pack it in,” Howard says, “but Kyle came along, and I stayed on and I’m glad I did because I love the direction we’re going. I love this Saskatchewan Junior League…and I’m so honoured and privileged to have been part of it for as many years as I have.”
The final, and perhaps most important piece of Brad’s job is to develop the SJHL’s officials of the present and future. According to third-year referee Dallas Folk, who is also a teacher and official, Howard fits that role to a tee.
“Brad has always been a positive influence to my development as an official,” Folk says.
“He is honest and upfront with what I do well and what I need to keep improving, as my officiating career continues. (His best advice has been) to control what you can control and put yourself in the best position to make the correct call.”
Clearly, Howard in his position in 2023, is the correct call for the SJHL.