"When I was 12 or 13, it was the thing to do. Many of my friends and I started refereeing at the same time."
But where most packed it in after just a few years, Valley East native Jason Vaillancourt persevered and prospered.
Now 28 years old and living in London, the Lockerby Composite graduate is one of 25 officials identified by Canada Soccer as part of the Next Gen Referee program.
And while his development grew exponentially over the years, Vaillancourt still traces much of his love for his craft to his earliest introduction, spending summers as one of the 40 to 50 young officials hired on by the Valley East Soccer Club, as a dozen games or more extended from one end of the Howard Armstrong Sports Complex to the other.
"I remember being in the lineup to register for refereeing, and that you had to be there early, as they limited the number of people that could sign up for refereeing," said Vaillancourt. "It was a very popular thing, for some reason."
Yet while many in amateur sport in Canada struggle to retain newcomers to officiating, the academically-inclined Laurentian University product (degree in Kinesiology), followed by a Masters of Physical Therapy at Western University, recalled a setting that fostered a very positive takeaway.
"It was really a joy to referee every summer, because it was a chance to be with your refereeing friends," said Vaillancourt. "I played hockey and soccer with, as well as refereed and worked at the same grocery store with the same group of people. We really had a lot of fun, with all of the games at the same fields."
"You would see the same people every night."
The truth is that Vaillancourt was groomed in an environment that would have been difficult to duplicate in much larger centres. "It's not that you knew everyone, but there was always only three degrees of separation," he stated. "You kind of knew everyone by association and as a result, it was easier to manage those types of difficult situations which you might have with certain players or coaches."
"And at the end of the game or at the end of the half, you were immediately immersed in a community of referees, because of the way that the club was set-up. We had that referees' shed, and everyone went back to the same area after their game, and all of a sudden, you're with all of your refereeing friends."
"You could get things off your chest or bounce things off other officials - or not talk about soccer at all."
Still, for as much as nurturing surroundings may have set the wheels in motion, Vaillancourt would need at least some element of chance along the way. "My first eye opening experience that really piqued my interest in trying to move through the ranks was when Sudbury hosted the Ontario Summer Games in 2010," he noted. "There was a little bit of luck involved with being selected for the Games, because I wasn't really aware of what the Ontario Summer Games were, at the time."
Intent on availing himself to any opportunity to upgrade his skills that existed, Vaillancourt would continue to fine-tune his craft, both on the field and in the classroom. "There wasn't a lot of (elite) soccer in Sudbury, but there also weren't a lot of referees that were trying to upgrade, so there was a lot of opportunity for the ones that were," he recalled.
"And because there wasn't a lot of higher end soccer, we would have our DRC (District Referee Coordinator) or assessors or other people at our games all the time. It wasn't like we were fighting for attention. Truthfully, at the time, I was young and the games were probably a bit tougher than I was ready for, but that was also a big part of my development."
A very likeable and outgoing young man (I can say this, comfortably, having known Jason since his start in officiating), Vaillancourt transitioned seamlessly when it came time to move from the north to pursue his studies, expanding the scope of his soccer officiating simultaneously.
"Even though it's a bigger city, London is still something of a small, big city," he said. "I had been there a couple of times before I moved down for school, so I had done a few games in the city before I even moved there. I think that was helpful."
Equally helpful is the manner in which Vaillancourt has also approached his brethren. It would be naive to believe that there is not some degree of competitiveness that exists, within the ranks of soccer referees, when it comes to trying to secure those plum top-end assignments. While this well-spoken northern lad understands that, he also believes that there is a bigger picture in play.
"Off the field, I've always appreciated the importance of the community of officials," he said. "As you move up, your network just expands. We're quite connected, and we continue to support each other. We're always watching each other's games, providing feedback."
For as much as the Ontario Summer Games provided an initial springboard for Vaillancourt within the realm of the world of officiating, his next big leap came in 2015. "When I upgraded from a regional referee to provincial, I was selected for a Canada Soccer Provincial upgrade camp in Montreal," he explained. "There were just a couple of us from Ontario."
"That was a big step, too. Once you attend that camp and successfully attain the Provincial status, there is a lot of opportunity for top-level assignments, if you're willing to put the work in."
His first League 1 Ontario assignment, the top level of pro-am soccer in the province at the time, came shortly thereafter. In 2019, Vaillancourt would be named to Canada Soccer's Next Gen Referee program. "The opportunity has been great and has provided me access to education, coaching, and the professional environment to support me in my pursuit of becoming a member of Canada's National list of officials and a regular match official in Canadian professional soccer."
Almost a year ago, to the day, Jason Vaillancourt would be assigned, as an assistant referee, to his first professional game, manning the sidelines at Tim Horton's Field in Hamilton.
It might have been a long way from his first nervous steps, maintaining control at the mini-fields in Hanmer, but it was a promotion that was clearly well deserved.