Being a part of the Olympic Winter Games isn’t just a lifelong ambition for the 3,000 athletes who have found their way to Sochi. It’s also a dream come true for the officials who have earned their way there, too.
Meet Mélanie Bordeleau, one of the top female hockey officials in the world and the only Canadian referee working the women’s tournament.
“As a kid I dreamed of going to the Olympics,” says Bordeleau, “and now I get the chance to live it.”
Those dreams began on the rinks of Gatineau, Que., where Bordeleau established herself as one of the top prospects in the game. She won a gold medal with Quebec at the 1997 National Women’s Under-18 Championship and was an alternate captain for the Quebec squad that won silver at the 1999 Canada Winter Games.
“I was a very intense and competitive player,” Bordeleau says now. “I didn’t like to lose.” But she was also very much a team player, on and off the ice, and it was the team spirit of the sport – making new friends, travelling together – that appealed to her as much as the competition.
Her talent on the ice, however, did not go unnoticed. In 1999 she was invited to the national team camp, where she skated alongside the likes of current National Women’s Team captain Caroline Ouellette and Gina Kingsbury, who won Olympic gold in 2006 and 2010.
“I was 17 years old and impressed by the players there,” she says. “I tried my best knowing I probably wouldn’t make the team, but just being at the camp was a great experience.”
Bordeleau went from the camp to college in the fall, and like most students soon found herself short on funds.
“I needed to pay for tuition, rent and food,” she says. A counsellor at the college told her she could make money officiating hockey and enrolled her in a clinic. “I started refereeing and I loved it. If it hadn’t been for money issues in college I probably never would’ve started refereeing. But I’m glad I did.”
After spending her weekdays in the classroom, Bordeleau would climb aboard a bus or the metro early Saturday mornings and find her way to whatever corner of Montreal the Novice game she had been assigned was being played.
While keeping an eye on the players she couldn’t help but overhear what was being yelled her way behind the glass. “I heard all the classics – go back in the kitchen, go do the laundry and so on,” she laughs. “It used to bother me, but now I just think it’s ridiculous.”
After six years of working her way through the ranks, Bordeleau got the call for her first major event: the 2005 National Women’s Under-18 Championship in Salmon Arm, B.C. More national and international events soon followed: the IIHF World Women’s Under-18 Championship in 2009 and 2010; the Clarkson Cup in 2010; the IIHF World Women’s Championships in 2011, 2012 and 2013; and the 4 Nations Cup in 2010, just to name a few.
Then this past December, Bordeleau, a registered nurse by day, learned she’d be going to Sochi. “I realized I could maybe go to the Olympics when I was assigned my first national championship in 1995,” she says. “I started dreaming of the Olympics and have worked really hard ever since to achieve it.”
Bordeleau’s first game in Sochi was the United States’ 9-0 win over Switzerland on Monday. Calling the game with her was Denise Caughey, one of two Canadian linesmen assigned to the women’s tournament.
What makes the experience of officiating women’s hockey on its grandest stage even sweeter is being able to share it with the family and friends who have supported her along the way. They will be joining her in Sochi midway through the Games and Bordeleau can’t wait to share the entire Olympic experience with those who helped get there.
Bordeleau has hung up her skates as a player – “I play maybe once a year, just for fun!” – but her involvement with the game as an official has left her feeling more than fulfilled. “Even though I stopped playing a long time ago, I still get to be on the ice and referee the best sport in the world,” she says. “I have travelled the world, met new people and made new friends, and lived some amazing experiences I would never have had as a player.”
And she wants to do her part to help other women officials achieve similar highs and heights. In between calling women’s games and boys Midget AAA games, she gives back to her home province’s program by supervising younger officials. “It’s important to me to share the knowledge of the game with them and help them realize their dreams.”
Perhaps the only downside of this success is that watching the sport strictly as a fan is no longer an option. “I see the game very different than a spectator does. I watch the referees and try to learn from them,” she says. “Or I just call offside from my living room when I watch a game on TV.”