A new poll appears to confirm what many junior hockey referees have been saying for years: verbal abuse hurled from parents in the stands is a common problem.

Nearly six in 10 (59 per cent) of 686 people surveyed online by the Angus Reid Institute earlier this month said they’d seen parents using inappropriate language or berating referees at a game in the previous two years.

Just under half (49 per cent) said they’d seen parents use bad language or berate young players in a game they attended in the previous two years.

Eighty-seven per cent of those who had attended a youth hockey game told the pollster such abuse “is a serious issue.”

And most of them believe the problem isn’t improving. Sixty per cent agreed that “rink rage” has remained “about the same and 24 per cent said it’s getting worse. Only 16 per cent said it’s getting better.

That’s despite Hockey Canada’s efforts for more than a decade to train coaches and referees how to discourage problem behaviour from parents.

“It’s important we realize kids see what happens around them,” said Todd Jackson of Hockey Canada. “And certainly if there are negatives, it’s going to hurt the enjoyment of the game.”

Parents are already expected to adhere to codes of conduct that prohibit abuse. For example, the Ontario Minor Hockey Association prohibits players, coaches and parents from “comments or behaviours which are disrespectful, offensive, abusive, racist or sexist.”

But parents say punishments can be complicated.

Branko Horvat, the uncle of a player practicing near Toronto on Wednesday, said “it’s usually the same parents that always cause trouble,” but he wasn’t sure of the solution. “Do you punish the children and kick the player off the team, or tell the parents not to show up?” Horvat said.

Montreal-area coach Brian De Souza said enforcement is the problem. “If you tell a parent that they can’t come to a game because of bad behaviour, who is there to enforce it to make sure they don’t enter the arena?”

The Angus Reid Institute poll was taken in early February, just before eight verbally abusive parents were banned in late February by the Vancouver Island Amateur Hockey Association.

VIAHA president Jim Humphrey told CTV Vancouver at the time that the league had lost about 20 officials in seven weeks.

“A very small minority feel they have the right to verbally abuse and harass,” Humphrey wrote in an open letter to parents before the bans. “The vindictiveness is resulting in a loss of both promising young officials and senior officials alike, as well as making the game difficult for the players to have fun.”

John Winstanley, a coach with Everest Academy, told CTV Toronto that more education is part of the answer.

“I think early on the coaches and the organizations need to do a better job educating the families and the teams,” he said.

The majority of the 686 people polled by Angus Reid Institute were friends or relatives of hockey players, 17 per cent were parents and three per cent were referees.

The Angus Reid Institute writes: For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of this size would carry a margin of error of +/- 3.7%, 19 times out of 20.

With reports from CTV National’s Vanessa Lee in Montreal and CTV Toronto’s Heather Wright