Fans appreciate the commitment needed to become an elite hockey player, but how many people know what it takes to become an elite referee? To reach the elite level, the effort is intense. And more women are doing it every year.
In 1997, Laurie Taylor-Bolton and Marina Zenk were among the first experienced elite officials with the OWHA (Ontario Women’s Hockey Association) when they made history at the IIHF Women’s World Championship in Kitchener, Ont., where they formed part of the first all-female squad to officiate an International Ice Hockey Federation event. A year later, both went as referees to the Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan – the first time women’s hockey was featured as an Olympic sport. Now, there are about 2,000 female officials registered with Hockey Canada.
A strong player, Taylor-Bolton started refereeing when she was 15 years old. “I had a friend who said it was a great part-time job – I could watch hockey and get paid for working on my skating,” she said.
Early on, she rarely saw other female referees. She started out working boys’ games because girls’ hockey hadn’t yet taken hold in Newmarket, Ont., where her family lived. In the years that followed – after she got her driver’s licence – she decided to focus on refereeing female games at a variety of levels.
“We only have so much time in a day, and I really wanted to dedicate myself to female hockey,” she said.
At the same time, Zenk was refereeing intramurals in Toronto, Ont., and said her turning point was returning home to Ottawa in 1988. Women’s hockey hadn’t grown as quickly there, so much of her experience came from fast-paced Midget AA boys’ games, and high level provincial, national and international assignments she received from the OWHA and Hockey Canada. In those games, she worked hard to earn respect from the players and fans.
“You have to know your rules, and you have to have confidence,” she said.
Taylor-Bolton and Zenk went on to work at the 1994 IIHF Women’s World Championship in Lake Placid, N.Y., the Pacific Rim Championship in 1996, and the 3 Nations Cup tournaments in both 1996 and 1997.
So how did they get there? Hockey Canada has a multi-level officiating program – each successive level develops referees and linesmen capable of officiating everything from minor league hockey games to international championships.
Becoming an elite referee is also about physical endurance.
“Officials need to be treated as athletes in their sport,” said Todd Anderson, manager of officiating for Hockey Canada. “They need to be in as good shape or better than the players.”
That takes cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, and exceptional skating skills. Equally important, Taylor-Bolton said, is having the right mind-set.
“You can’t referee without having mental toughness,” she said. “You have to skate at that speed, but you’re not going back to the bench after a 30-45 second shift. You’re out there for the whole game, making split second decisions.”
It also requires opportunities to work high-calibre games. In the women’s game, this still presents some challenges. Although female hockey has grown exponentially since the first women’s worlds back in 1990, there just aren’t as many elite women’s games for women to officiate, Anderson said.
But a lot has changed. Soon after returning home from Nagano, Taylor-Bolton became Referee-in-Chief for the OWHA – a post she still holds. Under her leadership, the OWHA continued to develop female and male supervisors and instructors, and monitored the performance of close to 2,000 officials. Even still, she said, most of the effort comes from each referee’s own time and resources, most often around a full-time day job.
Perseverance is why Zenk, who refereed the gold medal match between Canada and U.S. at Nagano 1998, said her biggest memory from those Olympics was being selected to referee the first game of the tournament.
“That was the most rewarding thing,” she said. “It represented that I overcame all the challenges leading up to that event.”
After working women’s senior championships in Finland and Hungary in 1999, Zenk became Hockey Canada’s first development coordinator for female officials. Today, Hockey Canada still works at a national level to identify and fund opportunities for female officials to travel to high-calibre events, Anderson explains.
Taylor-Bolton said she never planned to be Referee-in-Chief this long, but her love of hockey is as strong as ever, and she still has a strong desire to give back.
“You can’t be an ordinary person who does something extraordinary and not owe the game something,” she said.