Family Shares 75 Years of Referee Stories


From Wayne Gretzky to Steven Stamkos, Brian Coles and his son Sean have watched countless hockey players play thousands of hockey games.

They were on the ice for all of them.

Brian Coles refereed at a variety of levels for 52 years. He started at age 18 in the George Bell House League before joining the Toronto Hockey League — which consisted of multiple Toronto teams from AAA to A levels boys hockey. The THL changed its name over the years to MTHL and currently GTHL as Coles moved through the levels from linesman to referee. He is currently am a level 5 official. Off the ice, he has been — and still is — the GTHL Referee-in-Chief for 30 years. Brian also worked as a goal judge for the Toronto Marlies.

Sean started reffing when he was just 15 and has been officiating since 1989. Off the ice, Sean served as an officiating supervisor in the OMHA for four years.

We sat down with the Coles to talk about their experiences as on-ice officials and a variety of other topics including how rule changes have impacted the game, what the toughest call to make is and whether players should talk to the refs …

What levels did you officiate? In what organizations?

BRIAN COLES: I am a level 5 official. I have refereed levels A to AAA in the GTHL and in the OHA (Ontario Hockey Association). I have also travelled with GTHL teams to Finland to support them as an official in tournaments there. 

SEAN COLES: I started in the Mississauga Hockey League from 1989-91 where I reffed house league and rep hockey. I worked the MTHL/GTHL from 1990-2006 where I officiated all levels of rep hockey right up to AAA. I also still skate in the OHA working from 1994 to the present. I worked games at all levels; JR. D, Jr. C, Jr. B, Jr. A, college, OUA and Sr. AAA.

Who is the best player you ever officiated? What made them special in the game(s) you saw them play?

BRIAN COLES: Wayne Gretzky. I reffed him at age 14 when he played for the Toronto Young Nats AAA and then when he played for the Seneca Nats Junior B and the Sioux Greyhounds Major Juniors. From the beginning you could see his talent. He totally dominated while he was on the ice.

SEAN COLES: I would have to say that Steven Stamkos is probably the best player I have reffed. He had many talents. The ability to see the whole ice, smooth moves, his skating ability was above and beyond, a hard accurate shot. He did all this as an under age player.

Describe the biggest differences in the game today from when you started officiating?

BRIAN COLES: The speed of the game and the size of the players.

SEAN COLES: The biggest difference is probably the fact that the game is faster and cleaner. The two line pass was eliminated which sped the game up immensely. There’s not as much clutch and grab hockey with a tighter penalty standard and the addition of the retaining fouls.

What rule change had the most effect on the game during your career?

BRIAN COLES: The elimination of the centre line for passes opened up the game.

SEAN COLES: The elimination of the red line for two line passes had the most affect on the game. Sped the game up greatly

What is the one game that stands out in your mind that you officiated?

BRIAN COLES: Sorry TWO games. One was an outdoor game I reffed in Leningrad, Russia where the temperature was -30F. The second was the first game I did with my son, Sean.

SEAN COLES: It was a real honour to be chosen to ref the 2006 Midget AAA OHF gold medal game. On the other side of the coin, I was a linesman in a junior game in Caledon that took 3 hours and 45 minutes to play. We had a bench clearing brawl in a playoff game. I must have broken up about 12 fights during that altercation. We even had the goalies and backup goalies fighting each other.

What is the most bizarre thing you saw happen during a game?

SEAN COLES: I would have to say seeing a coach jump on the ice in his suit and a stick to make a play was the most bizarre. Can’t say I’ve ever seen that again.

Have you ever felt “unsafe” during or after a game because of a call you made?

BRIAN COLES: Not very often but YES. Once at Pinepoint arena, the father of a Midget aged player didn’t like a penalty called and threatened me to the point where police were called so I could get to my car. I’ve also had coffee or hot chocolate tossed at me as I left the ice. Once in London after a Major Junior A game, we were escorted to our car by the police as fans were in an uproar.

SEAN COLES: There have been a few times where I felt unsafe. After the bench brawl in Caledon we had to have a police escort from the rink. I’ve had a full garbage can tossed at me on the ice. I also had a group of parents waiting outside the ref room for us to leave. That was another police escort.

What is the funniest thing you have heard a player/coach or fan say during a game?

BRIAN COLES: I’ve heard everything probably a thousand times.

SEAN COLES: I’ve heard many good one-liners on the ice. A fan once yelled at me “even your dad would’ve called that”. The other that stands out is when I was lining a game in Streetsville. The coach was yelling at the ref about a penalty he thought should’ve been called. We had an icing, on the way back down the ice, the coach still hadn’t stopped yelling. The ref stopped in front of their bench and said to the coach “Coach, by the look of the scoreboard, the only thing that needs to be called is a practice for your team”

Refs are human and it can be easy to hold a grudge, Is it beneficial for players to talk to officials during a game?

BRIAN COLES: Yes. You, as the ref, have to have good people skills and treat each player respectfully and individually. They respect you if they feel your calls are fair.

SEAN COLES: A good ref doesn’t hold a grudge, comes over time. Given the right time in the game it could be beneficial for players to talk to the ref. As a ref you can choose to talk to the player when they are calmer. Under the heat of the moment is never a good time. If we as refs treat the players with respect, you’ll get it back from them.

What’s the biggest complaint you hear from players during a game?

BRIAN COLES: Supposed missed calls.

SEAN COLES: Biggest complaint would be fairness and missed calls. Teams usually only see the game from their side. We as refs have to watch the entire game, all players on the ice. Don’t always see everything. The four-man system has helped this though.

What is the toughest call for an official to make?

BRIAN COLES: If you’re in the proper position and paying attention, there aren’t any tough calls. But it is difficult to put a team down two men in a tight game.

SEAN COLES: Toughest calls would be the ones that put a team down a man or two in a tight game, at a crucial time. People may think we are impacting the outcome.

Have you ever officiated a game together? Any other Coles with a reffing background?

BRIAN COLES: Sean and I have reffed together many times. No other Coles with referee background so far.

SEAN COLES: My dad and I have worked many games together. That’s when I learned a lot! There’s possibly a third Coles starting to ref soon.

What advice would you give him or any other new official just starting out?

BRIAN COLES: Grandson Liam is interested in starting to referee. I would tell him to be fair and unbiased and always look interested. The game is important to the players.

SEAN COLES: Just be fair. Think of the players perspective. No matter what level; always look like you care and are interested. It means everything to the players in the game.

What is the most common mistake you see younger officials making?

BRIAN COLES: People come to see the players play the game not to watch the referee. Players come to play the game. Being over-confident as an official and not knowing the rules well enough and not calling the right penalties can cause negative results.

SEAN COLES: The most common mistake would probably be over-confidence. Some call it a “god” complex. You will only hurt the players, and impact the game. We are only supposed to be watching, not making a difference for the outcome.