Chris - question: Referring "to" or referring "about?"
Even <about> is a little discordant, but less so than <to>.
Another nuance is "distance" If I refer about someone as Kanai shihan, for example, it does not imply the personal relationship between us as Kanai sensei.
"Referring to" as in "talking about". Yes, part of it (and this is also just my impression) is that he is still very conscious of the distance in the relationships between himself and the old guard.