Referee Joy Johnston is at the top of her game. She’s coming off her third-straight Olympics, one where she was tapped to officiate the Gold Medal game between the US and Canada. Her next challenge may be even tougher than maintaining order on the ice between those two heated rivals on hockey’s grandest stage.
The Romford-born referee has spent over 15 years officiating internationally. She was the first woman in Britain to officiate men’s games, working in the English Premier League. She’s spent the past year as the governance manager for UK Sport, governance and compliance officer for the Sport and Recreation Alliance in Britain. Johnston has also assisted Ice Hockey UK’s referee-in-chief with the development program for officials and taken responsibility for female officials. She recently returned from the IIHF Development Camp in Vierumäki, Finland, which included 21 officials from 15 different countries. We spoke with Joy about her experiences at the camp, her career, and her next move.
IIHF Development Camp in Vierumäki
Scouting the Refs: What was your experience like with the IIHF Development Camp?
Joy Johnston: “It’s been running for about 10-11 years. Weirdly, I was at the first ever [IIHF] camp for women as a referee. I had a really great experience. The camp brought together girls from across the world for a week of instruction and a chance to referee some games for a bunch of women players who were also getting that development experience. I had a really great time. It kickstarted my international refereeing career. That was 2003, the first camp, when I was there as a referee. I haven’t really been back since.”
STR: What brought you back to the camp for 2014?
JJ: “In my international career, I’ve been refereeing quite a long time for the International Federation (IIHF). I’ve finished my third Olympic and was starting to think about whether I should give a little bit back in an instructing capacity. I’m not still completely ready to step off the ice but I’m starting to think about what’s my next challenge and what I want to do next.”
Joy officiated the 2006 Games in Torino, the 2010 Games in Vancouver, and the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. She refereed her first Olympic Gold Medal game in 2014, which Canada won 3-2 in OT over the USA.
STR: How did you get involved with instructing and helping to develop referees?
JJ: “I’d been in touch with the International Federation who asked me if I’d like to go to the camp as a training instructor and provide some experience helping some of the new officials coming into the international program. I went along and worked with some instructors I knew really well and others from officiating. Matt Leaf (Director of Officiating for USA Hockey), Kim Pettison (Officiating Manager and Director for the Danish Hockey Association), and others whom I’ve met and who’ve instructed me and supervised me and graded me throughout my refereeing career. It was nice to work with them. They got me up running sessions with the girls and talking about my experiences. I just had a fantastic week watching and seeing how the girls could grow so much within five or six days of instruction, seeing them pick up on some of the techniques that we can teach them in the classrooms, seeing them pick up on the feedback we’ve been giving them about games and changing things that they were doing on the ice. They all had a really challenging, tough week, but I think they all took quite a lot from it. I certainly took a lot from it in terms of being able to see the impact I was having and giving something back. It was a fantastic experience. I really loved it.”
STR: With your extensive international background – arguably as the top women’s referee in the world – how did your experience help in the classroom?
JJ: “That was one of the unique, nice things I was talking with the other instructors about. I’m still on the ice [as an active referee], so I can empathize quite a lot with what the girls are talking about in terms of challenges they might have in their national associations, challenges they have when they’re refereeing games, or challenges just in terms of getting to referee high quality women’s games. Coming from a nation which is doesnt have a huge hockey background — I mean, it’s not one of our major sports over here — it gives some of the girls an appreciation that you can still achieve a lot and go a long way in the sport. You don’t have to be from a nation where hockey is a main sport. I think it was helpful for me to be there in kind of an inspirational way as well to show that, if you work really hard, if you compete at the highest level as an official, then the International Federation recognizes that. You don’t have to come from a [traditional] hockey nation.”
Here’s a peek at the 2014 IIHF Development Camp in Vierumäki, Finland
Growth of Women’s Hockey
STR: How has women’s hockey officiating grown since you first put on the stripes?
JJ: “From an officiating status, it’s definitely grown. You hear more and more female officials being registered by the International Federation. The [IIHF] has done a lot to put a development program in place for the officials, so as I said, eleven years ago was the first time they’d done that camp, and they’re now at this stage where where both those camps are institutionalized and they will continue. That’s a good thing because it means that more women will be officiating since there’s more opportunity and there’s actual development programs in place for them.”
“From the time that I [first] went [to the IIHF Development Camp], I pretty much knew most of the people going to the camp, because it was a smaller community of female refs. This time around, it’s much wider and you’ve got participation from a variety of different countries. There’s a girl there from Australia, which is fantastic . You see the program they’re developing is across the world; it’s an international program, it’s not just kind of the usual suspects or the usual countries sending people. It’s reaching out and making sure that the women’s game is an international game. Ultimately, it has to be, otherwise it’s not going to stay on the world stage in the form that it is.”
The IIHF recently reaffirmed its commitment to women’s hockey. Earlier this year, IIHF president Rene Fasel commented on the possibility of women’s hockey being taken out of the Olympics. “That will never happen. I can guarantee that will never happen,” said Fasel. “We invested over 2 million Swiss Francs in the women’s hockey program since Vancouver and I hope it will be even better [for the 2018 Games in South Korea]. We need some more years and patience and to work very hard but it’s getting better. The [International Olympic Committee] is willing to give us the time. The women’s participation has not been a question.”
STR: With the growth of the women’s game internationally, is there any concern that a lack of high-level officials may hold the game back?
JJ: “I wouldn’t say ‘lack of’ because the number of registered female officials across the world is growing, and there’s certainly enough there in countries like the US and in Canada. There’s a huge amount of female officals. I think the rest of the world is catching up. Even in my own country where I was one female referee out of two or three, we now have about nine or ten, so it’s growing. I don’t think it’s holding the game back, I think it’s probably growing at the same momentum on an international scale as it is for the players and for the coaches.”
STR: Has there been any discussion, at least at international tournaments, of moving to a two-referee system?
JJ: “I think they’ll definitely consider it. I think that they probably are, this year anyway, considering it at one of the congress meetings. There’s been a lot of pressure from big hockey nations about that because women’s college hockey uses the four official system. That’s the best women’s league in the world, so if that system is used there then there’s an opportunity to use it at international competitions. It definitely has to be a question they are asking and considering for the next cycle.”
Donning the Stripes
STR: Hockey’s not a huge sport in the U.K. How did you get your start in hockey and what made you decide to take up officiating?
JJ: “Very randomly. One of my friends at school had an ice skating birthday party when I was about nine or ten. I said to my dad I’d like to just go to the ice rink and have a little practice before the party, so I didn’t embarrass myself or look really bad. My dad had skated as a child and taught me a little bit. I really enjoyed it, so he gave me the opportunity and said, ‘Do you want to learn properly? Do you want to choose figure skating and I’ll get you some lessons or do you want to choose ice hockey and I’ll sign you up and get you some lessons for that?’ I picked ice hockey because, at the age of nine, I noticed that all of the ice hockey players got to wear padding. That seemed like a better and safer idea than the figure skating, so I took up hockey.”
“At the time, the women’s team trained at midnight on a Tuesday night which was a school night, so I started playing on what was the mixed team, which essentially was a boys team with me on it. I learned to skate through that, playing with them in the under-10 age bracket and the under-12 age bracket. What we were finding was we were turning out for our games and there were no referees turning up. My dad – being an active, involved dad and knowing he could skate – took the course so that he could referee the games so that we would actually be able to play. I ended up having to wait for him to referee the games after my game before we could go home. He encouraged me to take the referee course so that, in his words, he could keep an eye on me and know what I was doing while he was out there refereeing the games after mine. That’s how it it kind of started. I started refereeing with him.”
“As I got a little bit older, and still playing on the boys team, I didn’t have the physicality that they had, so the refereeing just started to take off a little bit more. I quit playing at quite a young age – 12 or 13 – and then just concentrated on my refereeing. I’ve done it ever since then, all the way through school and through university. It was a little bit of pocket money to help out while I was at university. It then became my kind of second job, my passion in what I do outside of work.”
STR: Did you ever dream that you’d still be officiating or that you’d make it this far?
JJ: “When you start out refereeing at the local ice rink at eleven years old, you never imagine that 20 years later you’re going to be refereeing a gold medal game in Russia at the Olympics. It’s pretty crazy to imagine that when you first start out. It’s been a long journey but throughout those years I’ve had people supporting me. Obviously, my dad supported me all the way through. I’ve also had a lot of support from other referees in this country and referees and supervisors across the world. It’s a big community once you kind of break into it. We’re all in touch with each other. Even though we’re overseas and might not see each other for six months or so, we’ll keep in touch and learn from each other and offer support, which is really nice.”
STR: What advice do you have for those considering a career in officiating?
JJ: “Officiating the game is a fantastic way to be involved with the game at a really high level. You certainly get a lot of ice time. For players that are used to doing shifts – thirty seconds, a minute long – you’ll be out there for the full game, so you certainly get enough ice time. As I said, it’s a good way to be involved with the game and still participate in the game. You get to love it from a different perspective and I think [former] players bring that perspective of understanding the game management side of things well – where is the line of frustration from a player – and bringing that to the referee mind can be useful. I can only say enough good things about what [being a referee] enabled me to achieve in officiating and also at a personal level. I’ve traveled the world, I’ve been to numerous international championship tournaments and Olympic games, and all of those experiences I wouldn’t have a chance to do as a [hockey] player in my own country because we haven’t qualified for the Olympics. It opens up a whole window of opportunity that previously hasn’t been seen as an actual career path or a development program. They’ve certainly got that now, and there’s a lot of resources people can tap into, both with their national associations and the International Federation.”
2014 Sochi Olympics
STR: The most memorable moment in your career had to have been the 2014 Gold Medal Game in Sochi between Canada and the U.S. What’s it like to look back on that moment, six months removed from the game itself?
JJ: “For me, it was just being part of what is going down as one of the greatest games of women’s hockey ever played. You look back and, at the time, it’s a game and you’re refereeing and that’s what you’re focused on. Then you sit back a few months later and you realize that it wasn’t just any game, it was the greatest game of women’s hockey that’s been played on an Olympic stage. I think for me, it kind of hammered it home when I got [back to Britain]. The Winter Olympics doesn’t have as much significance in our country as the Summer Olympics, and so whenever you’re talking about refereeing at the Olympics everyone always asks the question, ‘Did you referee in London?’ I have to tell them, ‘No, I didn’t, because ice hockey’s not part of the Summer Olympics.’
But coming back from this one, everywhere I went, people have watched the women’s ice hockey final. That just kind of signifies how huge the women’s game is and how much it’s growing. A lot of people in this country were saying that it was absolutely the best ice hockey game of the Olympics. Women’s and men’s [ice hockey] combined, it was the best and most exciting one to watch. It got people in this country talking about ice hockey whereas previously it hadn’t been on their radar. For me, it was a great honor and a privilege to be a part of something that had that much of an impact. It’s always a great privilege to be on the ice with those teams and get to see the women’s game at such a high level It’s just a fantastic experience. It’s very difficult to describe to someone what it feels like to step out on the ice with the best players in the world. “
Ice hockey made its Olympic debut at the 1920 Summer Olympics held in Belgium. The sport was moved to the Winter Games for 1924. Great Britain won its first and only ice hockey Gold Medal at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Germany.
Dropping the Puck in Abu Dhabi
STR: With the Olympics nearly four years away, what’s next? I hear your career will be taking you someplace rather unexpected.
JJ: “Off the back of enjoying the instructing experience, I’ve taken up the role of Chief of Officials for the Abu Dhabi Ice Sport club, which is the national governing body of ice hockey in Abu Dhabi, UAE. I’m going to be there for nine months, refereeing in their top league and developing and doing an education program for their officials, which will be a new challenge for me. I’m taking that next year as my goal to see how I’m enjoying the instructing side of things. I’ll keep working at the international tournaments, and probably reassess at the end of the season where I want to go next. I’ll then have two more seasons to think about before potentially seeing if I can make a fourth Olympics, which would be pretty awesome.”
“The idea behind [the new role in Abu Dhabi] — I spoke to the International Federation about it and they’re quite keen for me to stay on the ice this year and I’m keen to do so. I don’t think I’m ready to step off, so this is an opportunity to keep me on the ice. It gives me a new challenge. I was ready for something that was slightly different that would push me a little bit out of my comfort zone. With the instructing side and also being a Chief of Referees as a female in an Arabic country is going to be a new experience for me and something that will challenge and push me, and that challenge will keep me on the ice this year. We’ll see what happens over the next couple of years leading into [the 2018 Winter Olympics in] Pyeongchang.”
STR: Abu Dhabi is about as non-traditional of a hockey market as you can get. Are you looking forward to the change in climate?
JJ: “Definitely. Yeah, I think it’ll be really interesting to be in a hot country that has really nice beaches and at the same time be walking from that into an ice rink. It’s certainly not an experience I’ve had in England.”
“Actually, you remind me, there was a girl who I officiated with, she was also in Sochi – Alicia Hanrahan. She’s one of the US linesmen who was selected [to work the 2014 Olympics]. She’s originally from California but moved to Minnesota to get more games and more experience leading up to the Olympics. When I first met her, I remember thinking, ‘Really? Hockey? California?’ She’s proved to everyone that it doesn’t matter if you’re from such a hot place or somewhere non-traditional in terms of hockey, you can still be pretty damn good at it. “
The United Arab Emirates has been part of the IIHF since 2001. They currently have four rinks with nearly 400 players. The UAE men’s team is ranked #45 in the world.
STR: How familiar are you with the current state of their league?
JJ: “They’ve got a program in place and I’ve heard about it before [through] a few import players or ex-pat players who live in Britain whose jobs brought them to Dubai. I knew they had something in place but I wasn’t really sure how much. They have three main ice rinks and a league structure in place. In terms of their season, it runs from September through April. They have about 45 games in their top league before they get into playoffs. It’s a little bit of an unknown entity for me because I haven’t seen anything until I get over there, but I’ve spoken to a number of players who’ve been over there and played. Their top league is of a reasonable standard and they have quite a big ex-pat community there. The referees I’ll be working with, I’ve already been in contact with a few of them from the US and Canada that have been living over there for a number of years doing their day jobs. I’ve got about 25 or so officials that I’m looking to connect with and pull together into a development program. It’s definitely going to be a fun challenge, if nothing else.”
Speaking of fun, here’s one more look of one of the lighter activities at this year’s IIHF camp in Vierumäki.
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