To celebrate Asian Heritage Month, the Greater Toronto Hockey League is shining the spotlight on the Asian hockey community this May. As part of the celebration, the League caught up with first year GTHL official, Youl Han.
Note: This conversation has been edited for clarity.
GTHL: Tell me a little bit about yourself?
HAN: My name is Youl Han. I immigrated from Korea to Toronto in March 2022. I have been officiating for over 20 years in the Asian Pro League, IIHF, and the 2018 Pyeongchang Paralympics. I have a lot of experience officiating in international games, and I love doing it. I had a successful first season in the GTHL and Ontario Hockey Association (OHA) this year with almost 200 games officiated combined.
GTHL: If you had to describe your 2022-2023 GTHL season in one word, what word would you choose?
When I came to Toronto, I only had two or three friends, and I knew almost no one. As an immigrant, life can be very difficult and challenging since everything is new. It can also be lonely at times since all my friends are back in Korea.
However, by officiating so many games in the GTHL and OHA, I was able to develop relationships and friendships with many coaches, staff, and other referees! They all treated me so well even though my English is poor, and I didn’t know much about Canadian culture. Now I have a good group of referee friends.
GTHL: How did you get into officiating?
HAN: Ice hockey is not very popular in Korea compared to baseball or soccer. When I thought about my future, I knew I had to find a different career. I love hockey so much and wanted to play it for the rest of my life. I stopped playing after college and I became a referee instead because I saw a much more realistic career path. Since then, I have been enjoying refereeing very much.
GTHL: What is your favourite part about being an official?
HAN: It is fun to control and lead the game with my own judgments and decisions while skating with the players. Like the saying “No Ref No Hockey,” I take great pride in enjoying my hockey life as a referee.
GTHL: What advice would you give to anyone looking to become an official?
HAN: If you love hockey and have enjoyed playing it, and are thinking about something related to hockey, then I would highly recommend the profession of officiating. As a referee, you can make a lot of international friends and gain a lot of experience by officiating in numerous international tournaments and matches. You can [also] keep yourself physically fit and maintain good health by skating for a lifetime.
GTHL: You are one of the only officials in the GTHL of Asian heritage. Does that have any meaning to you?
HAN: Yes, even in the NHL, there are no Asian referees. Not in the [Ontario Hockey League or American Hockey League] either. I believe I am one of the first referees from Asia in the GTHL. I just see it as a “challenge.” Coming to Canada as an immigrant was a challenge, and finding a career as a referee is also a big challenge for me now. It’s a difficult and challenging job, but I want to enjoy my love of hockey and the job of being a referee and become a great referee. I will learn and grow as a recognized referee in the GTHL, always striving to improve step-by-step. In the future, I want to be able to play a role in bringing many Asian players, including Korean players, to the GTHL or Canada to take on new challenges.
GTHL: What was your experience like at the PyeongChang Paralympics?
HAN: I was there for sledge hockey and it was amazing. Sledge hockey is very different than traditional ice hockey so that was an adjustment. Overall, I would say being selected for the Paralympics was one of my greatest moments and is something I’ll remember forever.
GTHL: What made you want to become an official in the GTHL?
HAN: In 2015, I was in Buffalo for the Paralympic Championships. Some of my close referee friends at the event were from Toronto and were refereeing in the GTHL. They told me about the league and how great it was, so I eventually moved to Toronto and became an official here. During that time, my friends had moved up from the GTHL to the OHA and some are now in the OHL full-time.
GTHL: What is your long-term goal as an official?
HAN: To get to the NHL of course. I love the hockey life and this past season I was doing GTHL and OHA games. The next step for me is the OHL and even AHL, but it’s hard. I need more experience and to improve my English so I can communicate better on the ice. I’m always practicing and trying to get better so I can achieve my goal.
GTHL: What is the biggest difference between Korea and Canada?
HAN: Hockey is not very popular in Korea, but here, hockey is everything – it’s everywhere! Here in Toronto, it’s a big hockey market and people are very passionate about it. I would also say that the people in Canada are very nice as well.
GTHL: What do you like to do when you are not on the ice?
HAN: Most of the time I just go to the gym or hangout with the friends I have made at local restaurants or bars. I love to golf too and the weather is getting nicer so I will go golfing as well.
GTHL: Will we see you at the GTHL Legacy Classic golf tournament in July?
HAN: Maybe! I saw the posting for it online, I need to find one or two more people for my foursome.
GTHL: What are your goals for the 2023-2024 season?
HAN: I really want to be invited to the OHL Combine next year. I know I’m a little bit older, but I know I can keep up and do well in the OHL. I will keep trying because I love hockey and being an official so much.