This story first appeared in a student newspaper and is reprinted and edited with permission.
For Rylie Lissebeck, skating on ice feels almost more natural than walking on concrete.
But at age 13, her parents pulled her out of competitive ice hockey because body checking was introduced into the male-dominated sport. Under the reasoning that Lissebeck would have been more prone to injury in competitive ice hockey, she turned to smaller leagues that prevented checking.
However, the smaller district leagues were not as competitive, leaving Lissebeck craving for something more.
And so, in 2014, Lissebeck began officiating the sport as a way to still be involved with ice hockey without physically playing the game.
“I hated the fact that I couldn’t play and travel as a player, but now I get to travel for the sport I love through reffing,” she said.
For the past two years, Lissebeck has been involved officiating in USA Hockey's Pacific District.
This year, after passing an open-book exam, a closed-book exam, and a skating exam, she qualified as a level four USA Hockey official, which is a title that only a small percentage of all officials in the country hold, considering those who apply are tested at the highest standard USA Hockey offers.
With her level four certification, Lissebeck was invited to officiate 10 games at the 2018 Chipotle USA Hockey Girls Nationals in Marlborough, Massachusetts, April 5-9. In addition to being only one of two people from San Diego to call games at Nationals, Lissebeck, age 16, was the youngest referee, with everyone else over 21. Being a referee, especially as a young female, does not come without its own battles, Lissebeck said.
“The hardest part about reffing is actually dealing with coaches, and having them yell at you,” she said. “Being 16 at that time, to have full-grown adults and even parents screaming at you that you’re wrong is hard.”
The worst thing to Lissebeck, however, is when people attack her based on her gender rather than the calls she makes as a referee. Whereas she called only girls games at Nationals, she mainly works boys games in San Diego.
“There’ve been male coaches who’ve told me that I shouldn’t be there because I’m a girl, that I can’t keep up because I’m a girl, that I shouldn’t be here or don’t deserve to be here because I’m a girl,” Lissebeck said, “I know it’s not going to stop and I understand that, but the benefits of being a part of the game and knowing that you’re helping move a game along outweigh those occasional negatives.”
When Lissebeck started officiating, she was one of the only three girls in the San Diego association.
“At first, I didn’t know what the chances of me reffing for women’s hockey were because there is no women’s hockey in San Diego, so being invited to go to girls tournaments has opened my eyes to seeing how many more girls are starting to play the sport or ref,” she said.
In a fast-paced game that requires the official to make quick judgments, Lissebeck correlates the action of calling penalties to a natural instinct that comes from delving into the intensity of the game.
“The thing is, you can’t get sucked into watching the game, rather you have to get sucked into the reffing portion of it: keeping your head going, not getting distracted by things, being quick on your feet, but also strong and sturdy,” she said.
Lissebeck said that the games where she has to more consciously make an effort to officiate instead of watch the game is when she knows the teams or any of the players.
“Normally, [to keep myself from getting distracted], I just keep track of what numbers the players are when they touch the puck and I try to watch their movements to look for any penalty situations,” she said. “It’s a combination of skating and being there mentally to make calls.”
To Lissebeck, having confidence in her judgments is important.
“Especially with tournaments like Nationals that you get invited to, I just remind myself that I’m there for a reason: that I was hand-selected, that I passed the requirements, that I know the rule book and I have some type of skill behind me,” Lissebeck said, “I go in with confidence because I have so much support from the supervisors, the Pacific District, and other referees.”
The most difficult call Lissebeck recalls making during Nationals came during one of the first games she oversaw as a linesman instead of being the referee.
As a linesman, her job was to call minor infractions such as icings or offsides, and assist in making major penalty calls.
Already in one minute into overtime, and with only four minutes left, the referee missed a major penalty where a player on the attacking team skated towards a corner, but instead of skating around the goalie, the player attempted to go through the goalie. As a linesman, Lissebeck was able to give input into a call that could potentially affect the game’s outcome.
“There were already high stakes because whoever made the next goal would win, so that call was definitely the toughest to make considering the impact it had,” she said. “Parents and coaches were yelling about how horrible everything was, but we decided that because there was an injury of a player and the goalie had to leave the ice because of it, the penalty would result in the team being down a player for five minutes.”
Despite the yells and criticisms she heard during that game, Lissebeck said that her drive to continue officiating stems from those hard decisions that keep the game flowing and safe.
“When I step onto the ice, my mind goes into a zone,” Lissebeck said. “Of course there will be games where both coaches are mad at you, but what we say in the ref world is if both coaches are mad at you, you did a great game because both of them are mad at your calls.”