Olympics a thrill for women’s hockey referee

Chris Oaks spoke with Erin Blair, a referee for women’s hockey at the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Q: You began officiating hockey games when you were a student at the University of Findlay about 10 years ago, and you’ve progressed through the ranks since then. What was it like, emotionally, when you learned that you had been called up for the Olympics?
A: I actually got an email back around Thanksgiving. Right away, I called a friend of mine who was also selected to go to Sochi, and we were both so stunned that we didn’t say anything to each other for a few seconds. Then, I called my mom and cried. For women’s hockey, it doesn’t get any bigger than this. It’s such an honor.
Q: There were concerns about security before the games. Were you at all worried about your safety going in?
A: Not really. I had every confidence in the Russian government and the international federation that they would do everything possible to protect us, that they wouldn’t put us in a situation where we wouldn’t be safe.
Beyond that, I tried to avoid all the speculation about what might happen at the games. Friends would ask if I heard about this threat or that fear, and I would say, “Stop! I don’t want to hear about it!”
You just can’t worry about it. I had to trust the people in charge so I could focus on the job I was there to do to the best of my ability.
Q: What about the accommodations? We heard a lot of stories about substandard housing.
A: Honestly, our accommodations were wonderful. We weren’t housed with the athletes, but we did stay in a brand new hotel within the Olympic Park.
There were some things that weren’t finished, like the gym and sauna, and it wasn’t a five-star hotel perhaps by American standards, but it was quite comfortable and acceptable. No brown water or anything like that. The people were very friendly and Sochi is a beautiful city.
Q: There are those who question the quality of women’s hockey as an Olympic sport, citing the fact that the level of play drops off significantly beyond the powerhouses of the United States and Canada. What do you think about the level of the sport and whether it belongs in the Olympics?
A: I have been involved in hockey since I was 8 years old, through college and now the international level, and I have seen the quality of play improve by leaps and bounds.
I think there are two reasons for that. North America has been a huge influence. Most of the members of those international teams are playing the game here.
Their experience is coming at colleges and universities in the United States and Canada, and they’re taking that experience back to their home countries to grow the game overseas.
We saw it in this year’s tournament. The gap is closing rapidly.
Secondly, I’m one of those who believes the game has advanced largely because it is an Olympic sport. If you were to take women’s hockey out of the Olympics, it would be a huge step backward from a developmental standpoint.
Q: If they’re lucky, athletes may make the Olympic team two or three times, but for many there is only one shot at Olympic glory. What about officials? Will you get the chance to go again?
A: There are so many girls coming up through the ranks, and only a few slots for officials to skate at the Olympics, that we have an unwritten rule of only being selected once.
I got to skate four games, including the semifinal between Canada and Switzerland, which was a great honor.
Yes, I would love to go back, but for the same referees to be called up multiple times wouldn’t be fair to other deserving officials who have earned a shot at their dreams, too.
“Good Mornings!” with Chris Oaks airs from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. weekdays on WFIN, 1330 kHz. He can be reached by email at chrisoaks@wfin.com, or at 419-422-4545.

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