Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League

Saskatchewan’s Finest: Raycroft leaving the game better than he found it

(Photo credit to Kyle McIntyre)

(Article written and submitted by Jamie Neugebauer)

Paul Raycroft’s message to the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League is simple yet heartfelt.

The Humboldt resident is moving on from his role as a senior referee in the league as of mid-January, 2024 after 10 years of on-ice service.

“I guess would just say ‘thank you’!”, he says.

“Obviously officiating isn’t an easy thing, but it wouldn’t be fun without anyone yelling at you or disagreeing or getting after you after a call. At the same time, I would say to new and younger officials that it’s a great part-time gig; officials are needed right now, and it’s just a great character builder. You learn integrity, honesty, trust, how to build relationships, and how to communicate properly. The game can’t happen without officials.”

Raycroft, 43, has officiating in his bones.

His grandfather Dan Raycroft refereed for over 50 years in Ontario, overseeing games the likes of those that featured a young Wayne Gretzky and even squads from the Soviet Union.

A multi-sport athlete, Paul participated in university-level basketball and golf while earning his education degree with a focus on business at Algoma University in the Soo, at Lake Superior State University in Michigan, and at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, ONT.

Grandpa Dan approached Paul with the idea of officiating as a means to help pay for his schooling while he was at Algoma.

“I didn’t really have any big aspirations for it when I started,” Paul says.

“But it really turned into something I enjoyed. I had so many good influences in my life growing up, especially in the area of officiating with my grandfather and uncle so heavily involved in it. My grandfather played a huge part in developing me and helping me out and he’s not only done that for me, but for so many officials throughout the years. He’s just such a wealth of knowledge.”

Paul’s refereeing in his home province included time in the Ontario Hockey League and at the Canadian University level, but career and destiny called him west.

He moved to Saskatchewan to take a teaching job in 2009, took a year to teach English in South Korea, moved back to Ontario briefly, and then came back to take a high school gig in Humboldt.

While getting back into officiating recreationally, he was approached in the early 2010s to step up to the SJHL.

Coincidentally, his first game in the league, as a linesman in 2014, was in the same arena and featured the same teams as his final one on Jan. 13, 2024: Melfort at Humboldt, Elgar Petersen Arena.

“I just remember I didn’t know anybody, and I was super nervous,” Raycroft says with a laugh.

“It felt like I was doing my first game ever again.

“There was definitely a bit of sadness when I was thinking about it going to be my last game,” he continues.

“I’ve been doing it for so long and I was nervous getting to the rink and getting ready for that game too. But I was refereeing with some good friends of mine and once I got into the game it was just like any other game. When it was finished there were a lot of really nice gestures from (SJHL Commissioner) Kyle (McIntyre), (Senior Manager of Player Safety and Standard of Play) Brad (Howard), and the coaches of the two teams Scott Barney (Humboldt) and Trevor Blevins (Melfort). It was really humbling.”

Raycroft mentions that a lot has changed in officiating even over the 10 years he was doing the job in the SJHL. The movement from a one-referee to a two-referee system, the eradication of the two-line pass, the crack-downs on hooking and interference, and others have been an adjustment.

Yet as much as there are ways the job has changed and continues to evolve, there are also lots of ways, according to Paul, that it stays the same.

“Your integrity and your character will always be central to the job you do, and the job I tried to do, as a referee,” he says.

“You have to be professional no matter what, and you have to keep the integrity of the game intact, not only in the on-ice physical play but in terms of what is being said and how people are acting as well. Every time that an official can go out and take care of everyone and leave the game in a better place than they did when the game started, then things will continue to move forward positively.”

The biggest reason Paul has decided to step down from on-ice officiating is simply time: he wants to devote more of it to his family, which includes his two kids Briar, 7, and Levi, 5, as well as his wife Beth whom he met in Saskatchewan.

He also wants to give more time to his work as a teacher and graduation and career coach at Humboldt Collegiate Institute.

Paul will still be around the game he loves. He is the Director of Officiating for the Saskatchewan U18AAA league and will be taking the role of Co-ordinator of Official Development, working with Howard to build the present and future generations of SJHL referees.

“Saskatchewan’s official development model is top-notch,” he says.

“They do such a good job of identifying individuals and you can’t even put into words the time and work that people like Brad and others put in. People like him are in it for the right reasons, not the money; they care and have a good heart and want to make things the best they can be. I’m so fortunate to keep working with him and those like him.”

Raycroft mentions that his most memorable game as an SJHL official was the one on TSN that opened the 2018-19 campaign after ‘the crash’ that featured the Humboldt Broncos and Nipawin Hawks at the EPA. He also cherished his time in last year’s final between the Battlefords North Stars and Flin Flon Bombers.

“The SJHL is a top-notch organization,” he says.

“Compared to where I came from in Ontario the fans are so passionate. With the leadership group now, with Kyle and Brad and others, the general managers and coaches and governors, we just need to keep doing what we’re doing and we’re making the game better. It’s so important for all of us to keep working as hard as we can because together we’re not only building hockey players, but we’re building people to go out from our league and make the world a better place.”