They've been called zebras, the Three Blind Mice... and sometimes much worse. Now two University of Regina students are conducting a study on the stress that hockey referees endure that can sometimes include physical attacks and death threats.

Kim Dorsch, an educational sports psychologist who's a co-author of the study, says plenty of studies have been done on hockey players, coaches and even hockey parents, but few on referees.

"Officials are the forgotten person on the ice," she told Canada AM. "We often forget they're a person."

Dorsch says numbers from Hockey Canada suggest that about a third of their hockey officials drop out every year. That's about 10,000 a year. She says she wants to find out why so many leave the officiating job, but says verbal and physical abuse likely lead to burnout.

In a couple of recent incidents in Saskatchewan, two Redvers Rockets players were suspended after an alleged attack on a referee. The referee, Darren Johnson, called police after the game because he felt in danger.

And on Feb. 18, referee Dale Neudorf was allegedly assaulted at a recreational tournament on the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation, a reserve about 350 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.

Dorsch and Harold Reimer of the U of R's Faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies are working in a joint initiative with Sport Canada to determine the stresses on refs and why some are able to cope while playing an often-unpopular role on the ice.

"They may be particularly hardy people," she says and wonders which personality characteristics enable an official to cope.

Of course, there are plenty of referees who seem thick-skinned to the abuse and are able to have long officiating careers or make it to the NHL and world hockey leagues.

They have "probably developed coping strategies that have helped them deal with issues," says Dorsch, who wants to examine what those strategies are.

She says referees have to steel themselves mentally before stepping out onto the ice, just as a player does.

"A lot of the things that athletes have to go through to enhance their performance, officials have to do as well."