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Have whistle, will travel

For high school refs, it's late nights and long drives... all for $38 a game

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Basketball referees Wayne Banfield (left) and Stewart McKenzie.


Basketball referees Wayne Banfield (left) and Stewart McKenzie. Photo Store

CARMAN -- A brilliant full moon and a gazillion stars gaze down on Wayne Banfield and Stewart McKenzie as they lug their gym bags and dinners of Gatorade and granola bars into Carman Collegiate.

It's an hour after they finished their day jobs in Portage la Prairie and scrambled to make the drive down frigid two-lane country highways -- curse that freight train near Elm Creek! -- and still five hours or more until they see their homes for the first time since early morning.

Yell 'Hey, ref!' and both their heads will turn in unison.

It's a pretty glamorous life, officiating high school basketball.

The tiny phys-ed teacher's office they've been assigned as their dressing room has about enough room for two big men to dress, as long as only one at a time pulls up his socks.

Eighty minutes of varsity basketball -- girls and then boys, Gretna's Mennonite Collegiate Institute Blues against the Carman Collegiate Cougars -- lie ahead, with the refs not knowing how the games will go; whether the players will be respectful; whether a coach will prove obstreperous; whether the spectators, if any, will be behaved; whether there's room along the sideline to avoid bashing a hip or elbow on the wall; whether the clock will work or the scorekeeping crew needs to be educated; whether the game ball is up to snuff.

And when they come back to the car, whether they can still see the highway.

Grey shirt, black pants, black shoes.

These guys love it.

They've been refereeing since they graduated from Portage Collegiate more than 20 years ago, Banfield two years ahead of McKenzie.

"We go down to Winkler, Gretna, Morden; we go to Treherne, Glenboro, St. Laurent, MacGregor, Gladstone... Ste. Rose du Lac, we do that too," said Banfield, this night taking his car after scooping up McKenzie outside his office. Banfield is a lift operator, McKenzie a provincial civil servant who's also reffed out of both Brandon and Dauphin regions over the years.

"I played at Portage Collegiate for two years. Grade 11 we went to the provincials, and in Grade 12 we won it all. I was the MVP of the tournament, which was kind of nice," Banfield reminisced.

"Wayne was the first guy I refereed with," said McKenzie.

There are 25 refs operating out of Portage, including one woman, and there are no set pairs: A lot depends on who can get off work in time, or on the quality of the competition. They get a princely $38 a game each, and 40 cents a kilometre for the driver. Most rural games start at 6 p.m. It's a bonus, of course, if Portage Collegiate is playing at home.

"I have used holiday and bank time if they really, really need me," noted McKenzie.

Basketball is big time, up there with volleyball for pretty much every high school, and on the same scale as hockey and football for those schools that have them. And basketball comes with the worst weather and road conditions and earliest sundowns of any school sport.

Just the week before, they'd had games cancelled by the deep-freeze, but the rule of thumb is if the schools haven't cancelled and the visiting team makes it, the refs should make it, too.

This night there's only blowing snow on bare highways, and the full moon provides plenty of light.

One time, said Banfield, "I went to Carman to ref, coming back, we just straddled the centre line because you couldn't see the road at all."

McKenzie laughed that at tournaments, once a ref makes it to the town on Friday, he might be there for the weekend, in case he can't make the drive back Saturday morning or other referees can't get through the storms.

He's stayed in Glenboro at the coach's house throughout tournaments: "They open up their house, they feed you."

The chatting comes easily to these two old buddies. On the court, grinning amiably during stops in play, moving easily with the play, McKenzie is much louder than Banfield, both completely in control without getting all-attitude about it. McKenzie's 'and-one call' is a flourishing piece of artistry as he signals the basket and foul shot.

Banfield reckons they do about 100 games each during the basketball season, which runs barely three months, but gets seriously intense. Varsity two nights a week, junior varsity the other two nights, tournaments galore Fridays and Saturdays, all craving certified referees.

"You think you're too good to do junior high -- you hear (that) from the assigner," McKenzie laughed.

Like most high school sports sanctioned by the Manitoba High School Athletics Association, basketball could use more officials, especially younger ones.

Distances between schools and the ability to get off work in time are huge: it's 196 kilometres each way from Portage to Ste. Rose du Lac, 160 km each way to Gretna, only a few kilometres less to Altona.

Many of the smaller communities don't have their own officials living in town.

"Winkler hasn't had anyone to cover for a long time," said Banfield. "I do Winkler a lot. (Two days hence) I'm down in Winkler, I'm back Friday and Saturday for a tournament." The sidelines might be tight in Carman Collegiate's gym, but it is "one of the good ones," Banfield said.

They both love doing games at Winkler's Garden Valley Collegiate -- the gym there is enormous. No need for players to worry about going splat on a gym mat pegged to the wall half a step after putting up a layup.

"They made it good for basketball. A bit of running, but lots of room on the sides," Banfield pointed out. On the other hand, "Elm Creek is a very, very small gym."

They have to be nimble at times, said McKenzie. "Sometimes, the scorer's table is on the court, woo-hoo, you do a little side step."

Low ceilings aren't quite as detrimental to basketball as they are to volleyball, but, still, you need to get an arc on a shot...

"PCI, the old gym, that was pretty bad for throwing three-pointers," Banfield pointed out, to which McKenzie chipped in: "You pretty much had to shoot them through the rafters."

Speaking of three-point lines and keys, international rules are in effect these days, but sometimes gyms still have the NBA configurations, depending on how much money school trustees can afford to budget for painting new lines.

Sometimes, if the gyms are really small, there are ground rules, McKenzie said. Once a team has brought the ball over centre, it may be allowed to take it back into the other side over 'a floating centre' a certain distance without incurring an over-and-back call. "It's one of those nuances as a referee."

He remembered a crucial turnover in Swan Valley because there were so many multi-coloured lines marked on the floor, one team got confused about which lines ruled that game -- the blue, black, red, brown, yellow, green, white lines, the ones for volleyball, badminton, floor hockey, wall-to-wall cross-court basketball.

Being seen often by one school isn't a drawback, said Banfield: "Players and coaches get to know how you call a game."

And they remember players.

McKenzie refereed Tammy Mahon from Treherne, a real treat for him to see up close, one of the best student athletes Manitoba has ever produced and the MHSAA female athlete of the half-century.

"It's very nice to referee kids like that who go on," Banfield said, as McKenzie recalled, "One time, (Brandon high school) Neelin's starting five went on to college."

They cherish being assigned to officiate Habs and Leafs, Red Sox and Yankees.


"They'll put us in Treherne-Glenboro, which are tough games. There's some good battles," Banfield said.

"They have good programs, good coaching," so they always have good teams, McKenzie said. "You go to Glenboro and Treherne in the playoffs, go early" to get a seat.

"They bring garbage-can lids and cutoff hockey sticks (to bang) -- I love reffing then. It becomes a sea of green, a sea of blue."

Who knew?

McKenzie remembered one coach up in the Dauphin and Swan River area who acted so badly that eventually he got kicked out of high school sports.

But the refs don't get hassled a lot and can always turn to a teacher for help -- each school is required to have at least one teacher at a game, who's usually a coach. If it is a volunteer coach from outside the school, a teacher must be present on the bench.

This night in Carman, a mother starts giving them grief 22 seconds after opening tipoff of the girls' game and doesn't let up until the final buzzer. While the mom directs most of her loud invective into pointing out the shortcomings of other people's daughters on the Carman team, she reserves some for the guys with the whistles.

After 22 seconds: "So far I've seen three fouls."

"Oh, foul! Come on!"

"Double dribble!"

"Fouled! Good grief!"

"Oh come on, let's get some fouls out here, ref."

At halftime, the refs laugh. Yeah, they can hear her; they're not impressed by her knowledge of the rules, and if it gets too bad, they can always ask the home team coach to deal with her.

Banfield chortled: "You always get fans who go, 'In the key!' " over and over and over again.

The doubleheader goes smoothly, Carman dominating both ends, everyone behaving on the court. There's one moment when the clock stops during play, but that's quickly rectified.

All things considered, it's a decent time to get back home in Portage la Prairie, about 10:30 p.m. Banfield and McKenzie are the experts in which places to eat in rural Manitoba that are still open late in the evening, though, alas, the list is short.

They talked briefly about one fellow who stopped reffing because it took him away from home too much.

"It takes a toll. Your home life suffers," said Banfield, but his family is supportive. And with a big laugh, "I enjoy reffing basketball; it makes the winter go faster."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 15, 2014 D8

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