There’s no question that money motivated Shawn McCaskill to start officiating as a teenager. “Money talks,” especially to a twelve-year-old. But it was clear that he loved it right from the start. To this day, Shawn remembers the support was available to him as a young official with North Delta Minor Hockey Association. Even as a brand-new official, Shawn was never afraid of making mistakes because he knew he had the support from his teammates and his Referee-in-Chief. In his second year of officiating, he was invited to do an Atom A tournament in Surrey. As a thirteen-year-old, Shawn had no way to get there. But that didn’t deter him. Young Shawn put on his shirt and tie, got on the bus to Surrey, worked three games, and then got on the bus back home. If there was a game to work, Shawn was going to be there.
“I didn’t care how I got there, I didn’t care how much it paid, I just wanted to be on the ice”
Shawn continued to officiate as many games as he could and in the summer of 1990, he was invited to BC Best Ever, which is now the BC Officiating Program of Excellence. He kept grinding away in minor hockey and in 1992, he officiated his first Junior B game. Shawn took to the ice with Kelly Sutherland and Baron Parker, both of whom would go on to work in the NHL. For those who don’t know Shawn, he is 5’6 on a good day; he worked a little bit as a linesman but his future was as a referee.
After two years of working a handful of games on the lines, Shawn got the opportunity to work as a referee in Junior B. He received a slate of assignment but when it came to Christmas, he was dropped. At the time, he wasn’t working a lot of other games and he was frustrated with his inability to progress as a referee. He considered stepping away from officiating altogether.
It was then that Steve Erickson, a veteran official (and now sportscaster) from Delta took Shawn under his wing. Steve encouraged Shawn to referee as much as possible, regardless of level, and pushed him to hone his skills. Shawn turned his work that season into an invitation to the Abbotsford International tournament, which featured teams from Russia, Sweden, and Czechoslovakia. Shawn worked the gold medal game at that tournament and he never looked back. The next year, he was refereeing full-time in Junior B and shortly thereafter, he made the jump to Junior A, where he continued to work until he was forced off the ice.
“My goal had been to have surgery in January and be ready for playoffs by the end of February… I never skated another game.”
Shawn’s life was turned upside down in 2002. In January, Shawn’s son was born, giving his life a new purpose that he still treasures today. In November, Shawn was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He had a large tumour that was growing at a concerning pace and he would have to undergo surgery. On 16 January 2003, Shawn had surgery to remove the tumour. During the surgery, the doctors inadvertently injured a nerve in his leg and, as a result, one of Shawn’s quadricep muscle was irreversibly damaged. There was nothing that could be done to repair the muscle and just like that, his on-ice career was over.
When Shawn was first diagnosed with cancer, he had no intention of letting it derail his officiating career. But no one could have foreseen the unintended consequence of the surgery. His aggressive six-week recovery timeline went out the window but he couldn’t accept that his career, for which he had worked so hard, was over. In the summer of 2003, Shawn was going to do whatever was necessary to get back on the ice. He had a specialty brace made by a doctor at the University of British Columbia and hit the ice to regain his skating ability. Shawn gave it his best but there was no denying that, physically, he simply wasn’t the same person anymore. Shawn didn’t have the strength or the balance to skate safely, and it was then that he had to come to terms with the reality that he was never going to referee again.
“From that day [and] for the next ten years… there were a lot of challenges… overnight, it was just gone and I just didn’t know how to deal with it.”
This began a period of twelve years that were the darkest in Shawn’s life. Hockey was Shawn’s whole life. He played all the way up to Junior B, he taught power skating, skills development, and beginner adult hockey. It took him years to truly come to terms with what had happened to him. Depression hit him hard and he struggled to come to terms with that. His wife tried to get him help but Shawn simply wasn’t in a place to get help. He didn’t want to talk about it. After a lot of encouragement from his wife, Shawn eventually went to his doctor and described what he was feeling. His doctor prescribed him anti-depressants and Shawn took them for a few months but they didn’t work. He felt lost.
“I went through some severe bouts of depression where… if it weren’t for my kids, I honestly don’t know if I’d still be here… and that scares the shit out of me”
In the spring of 2003, when Shawn had just graduated from a wheelchair to a walker, he was asked to help supervise the Junior B final series. It was excruciating to be in the rink watching others officiate games that he should have been officiating. But Shawn wanted to hold on to whatever connection to officiating he had left. He gradually became more involved in the supervisory side, and served as the Provincial Above Minor (Junior A & B) Supervisor for a number of years. He had the opportunity to travel the province and help young officials progress and develop their skills. Seeing these officials have success, including a few who ended up in the NHL, helped get him excited about officiating for the first time since his surgery.
Despite these positive experiences, there was no question that something was missing and Shawn struggled to cope. He went through severe bouts of depression during this time and he admits that his children were the only thing tethering him to reality. During this period, he went through sixteen jobs, unable to find satisfaction in any of them. When he had suicidal thoughts, his children were what kept him away from the edge, both emotionally and literally.
“There were a lot of road trips, going to supervise by myself and honest to God, it would’ve been easy to pull in front of the semi… or to pull off the side of the cliff… those thoughts crossed my mind a lot.”
Eventually, Shawn reached a point where he was putting all of his physical and emotional energy officiating. Although he was helping others grow in officiating, Shawn wasn’t growing, and he wasn’t helping his family. In 2010, Shawn and his family moved from Kamloops back to the Lower Mainland and Shawn fully stepped away from hockey for the first time. He was completely out of hockey for two years and while he cherishes the time he spent with his family, he still couldn’t find happiness. Shawn went through a lot of mental “anguish” in the twelve years following his surgery. In 2014, his son turned twelve and wanted to get into officiating. At the time, Abbotsford Minor Hockey didn’t have a Referee-in-Chief and the association president approached Shawn to take on the role. Shawn jumped at that opportunity and hasn’t looked back.
“Maybe this is what I was supposed to do all along. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to be the referee anymore, maybe my turn was over and it was time for me to help others.”
Shawn wasn’t raised in a church but a few years ago, his daughter got involved in going to church through a friend and she loved it. Shawn had never so much as cracked the Bible. He wanted to be supportive of his daughter but he really didn’t know where she was coming from. As she talked more about her experiences, it started to click for Shawn. At his daughter’s urging, Shawn went to church more in 2016-17 than he had in his previous forty-four years. Shawn had always believed things happened for a reason and during those dark times in his life, he struggled to understand why this was happening to him. He hadn’t done anything to deserve how his career had ended. Going to church helped Shawn to take this belief and understand it in the context of action. Shawn believes that we are not powerless to the whims of God. If we are willing to believe that good things will happen, Shawn believes that we can make them happen.
“One day at a time, we start teaching kids that it’s okay to talk… [if we do that, then] in ten years, nobody will remember that there was a time when we didn’t talk about these things”
Shawn sees a clear need to improve on how we prepare our kids to handle mental health challenges if and when they become a problem. Approximately 10-20% of Canadian youth suffer from a mental health problem or disorder at some point in their adolescence. In British Columbia, BC Hockey’s officiating development program has done an excellent job of producing on-ice development. The evidence of that is clear: twenty-three of the Western Hockey League’s fifty referees and twenty-nine of the ninety-four linesmen are from British Columbia. But outside of some education around professionalism and attire, the program has room to improve developing their young officials off the ice.
“If we get back close to… sitting around the dressing room like we’re sitting around the dinner table… we will see the game change in a big way.”
Shawn is certainly proud of BC’s on-ice success but he believes that it’s time for the program to take another step. There are adolescent officials who are working between five and fifteen minor hockey games per week, which means that senior officials, mentors, and supervisors are adults in a leadership role in the lives of these young people; just like family members, teachers, and coaches. Shawn wants the officiating community to fulfill that role more seriously. He envisions a culture where the officials are a team; not just a bunch of individuals wearing the same jersey. With that culture will come the ability to talk about more than just the game in the locker. If our officials aren’t talking to their supervisors, mentors, and each other, who are they talking to?
“We, as guys especially, are being told ‘you’re a man, you can’t cry, you’re weak if you show emotion,’ and that’s a load of crap.”
Shawn admits that, in hindsight, there were probably people that he could’ve reached out to from the depths of his depression. But at the time, he couldn’t see that far outside himself. He couldn’t even talk to his wife, his best friend, about what he was going through. It’s was difficult to realize that he needed to talk to someone but it was even harder to do it. Shawn looks at how much the game has changed even in the last ten years as proof positive of that. That’s where Shawn sees the ability for anyone to make a difference.
“If we can eliminate bench-clearing brawls, checking from behind, or hits to the head, why can’t we change how we view mental health?”