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U.S. Officials Embrace Olympic Experience And Challenges That Come With It

By Harry Thompson - Editor, USA Hockey Magazine, 02/12/22, 12:30PM MST


The Olympics are the opportunity of a lifetime for the five USA Hockey officials

BEIJING – Chelsea Rapin showed up to officiate an Olympic hockey game and found herself in the middle of an international incident. 

Even with more than a decade of experience refereeing games at all levels, the Walled Lake, Mich., native was faced with a situation not found in the USA Hockey Officiating Casebook.

Rapin was tabbed to work the preliminary round game between Canada and the team representing the Russia Olympic Committee. Minutes before the teams were set to take the ice, the Canadians expressed their concern that they had not received the daily Covid-19 test results for the Russians, which caused a 65-minute delay in the start of the game and forced both teams and all four officials to wear masks during the game.

Welcome to the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, Covid edition. 

“There’s definitely no script for that one,” said Rapin, who was in constant communication with both benches as well as her IIHF supervisor. “You just have to be patient and understanding that there are a lot of things going on behind the scenes to ensure all the player’s safety and our safety.”

BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 7: Game official Chelsea Rapin #8 bumps elbows with her squad prior to ROC vs Canada at the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Both teams wore masks until the start of the third period, when the Russians returned to the ice without face coverings.

For Rapin, wearing a mask is no big deal. As a collegiate official, she spent most of last season skating with a mask on. 

“It does take a little time to get used to pulling down the mask, blowing the whistle and then putting the mask back up,” she said. “It’s definitely a learning experience.”

More than just a learning experience, being here is the opportunity of a lifetime for the five USA Hockey officials who have worked so hard to rise up the ranks to reach the pinnacle of the officiating world.

Joining Rapin on this officiating odyssey is fellow referee Kelly Cooke, and linesmen Jackie Spresser, Sara Strong and Kendall Hanley

While each of these officials has worked thousands of games over the course of their careers, there was something special about stepping onto the ice and taking that first lap around the stadium before their first Olympic game.

“You take that minute to take that hard couple laps and you soak it all in,” said Hanley, who worked five games in the preliminary round, including the U.S and Canada game. 

“You take some time to just kind of enjoy it and take a deep breath and then kind of the puck drops and away we go.”

All five previously worked the 2021 IIHF Women’s World Championship in Calgary so they are familiar with the inner workings of officiating and living in a bubble. 

Apart from just the masks, the officials are isolated from the rest of the Olympic community, and sometimes even from each other. They are grouped in pods of five where they work, eat and hang out together. They see the other officials in passing but otherwise they take social distancing to an entirely new level.

“The bubble in Calgary helped prepare us for being here and not just what to pack and kind of what to expect, but with all that downtime we have in the hotel,” Cooke said. “It definitely helps us bond as a team, but it’s also a little isolating at times. Having that dry run in Calgary set us up to have success here.”

One thing they learned was to pack what you need or think you’ll need, including an abundant supply of snacks and life’s other essentials.

“My saving grace has been my espresso machine that I brought from home,” Strong said.

Cooke stocked up on candy to satisfy her sweet tooth, but her supply has been dwindling faster than she counted on. 

“We’re only on day nine and it’s almost gone,” she said earlier in the week. “I’m going to have to figure something out.” 

Unfortunately there are no convenience stores inside the bubble. 

It’s a small sacrifice to make for having a pivotal role in the greatest tournament in women’s hockey. It’s only been six months since they worked the Worlds but each of the officials said the quality of play here and the competitiveness of most games is good to see, especially for those who played college hockey before putting on the stripes.

“We’ve seen a lot of development from different teams since even Calgary,” said Rapin, who played collegiately at the University of Vermont. “We were talking about that earlier about how the level of play there was great. And since then, it’s only been a couple of months and the development of some of these teams in those past four months is pretty unbelievable.”

While they have been tucked away inside their own little bubble inside a bubble, the quintet did attend the opening ceremonies as well as a couple of U.S. men’s hockey games.

“When I think of the Olympics, the opening ceremonies are a big part of it for me. We were really fortunate to be there,” Spresser said. “It was very emotional. It was kind of that moment that it hit me that I finally made it.”

Like the players, each of these women has earned the right to be here. Who will get the nod to work the semifinals and medal games is, as Hanley put it, “out of my pay grade.” They are all certainly deserving but space is limited and qualified candidates are in ample supply.

“We just go on the ice and do the best that we can and whatever happens kind of happens,” Strong said. “Hopefully we get assignments, and if not we cheer on our friends and partners to do the best that they can.”

And while these Games may have looked significantly different from previous ones, each of these women has fulfilled a dream years in the making and has earned her stripes as an Olympic official.

“I’ve loved every minute of it,” Spresser said. “It might not be normal, but it’s all I know. And it’s been great.”

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