MONTREAL -- There have been plenty of shortages during the pandemic – bikes, lumber, new cars – but this is one that few people expected.

A lack of referees has hit Quebec’s recreational sports scene, especially hockey, making it hard for people to pick up their old pastimes the way they were hoping.

“This is going to be probably the hardest season we’ve ever had,” said Robert Hurtubise, the referee-in-chief for the Suroit district hockey league, just southeast of Montreal.

Meanwhile, the pace of rec sports has picked back up to full speed, or maybe even more.

“Kids are doing two or three games in one arena, maybe having time to have a snack, and then are booked in another arena 15 to 20 miles away,” he said.

“Believe me, I’m scared that by Christmas, some of the guys are gonna be burnt.”

Usually, Quebec's referee workforce stands between 4,600 to 4,800. This year, the roster has shrunk by as much as 30 per cent.  

What happened? Essentially, a lot of the referees found other work during the long sports hiatus, said another organizer. And they came to see the less pleasant aspects of refereeing.

Organizers told CTV News it's normal for refs to be verbally berrated by people in the stands. 

“They found that they could find jobs that maybe paid a bit less, but you know, nobody’s screaming at them, no one’s calling them names,” said Antony Monaco, who runs a league in east-end Montreal with more than 40 teams.

“At the end of the day, we're all human beings.”

There’s no shortage now of players, echoed Monaco, in the adult leagues as well as kids’ ones.

“There were a couple of instances where we had no ref and I had to referee,” he said.

“It happened maybe twice. It’s not the ideal situation, but whatever gets the job done.”

The shortage is a pattern across Quebec, say organizers. It means some leagues will have to put two refs on the ice instead of the usual three in the hopes of avoiding cancelled games.

Leagues are also trying to recruit more refs, but to do that they’ll have to face a bigger question: how to make the job enticing again.