Jess Vybiral has tried unsuccessfully to persuade other local female hockey players to join her as referees.
Perhaps, she said, they didn’t need a job like she did nine years ago, because even at 13 she craved the sense of responsibility and feeling of pride from earning a paycheck. Or perhaps they feared a job that overwhelmed many before them, regardless of gender.
“So many officials, they just do one season and they’re done because it’s so demanding. They get rocked when they (realize) this is not what (they were) expecting,” Vybiral, now 22, said.
The Millcreek Township native’s initial worries centered on if she would be taken seriously as Erie’s lone female hockey referee, especially by angry coaches, players and parents who disagree with her calls.
Yet while others have come and gone during her time as an official, Vybiral has developed a passion she shares with her father, 21-year veteran Mike Vybiral, and other male officials who appreciate their fellow referee’s knowledge, desire and dedication.
“I really wanted to stick with it. I didn’t want to give up on it,” she said. “The first few (years) are the hardest. I would talk myself out of (quitting) and give it a try the next game to see if it got better. I’m still here, so it always got better. I always bounced back.”
Vybiral has reached especially great heights on the ice in the past year, by gaining Level 4 status — USA Hockey’s top classification for referees — while twice officiating in the USA Hockey Nationals, the national governing body’s most prestigious tournaments.
Vybiral recalled her early days as a referee on the local Squirt (ages 9-10) and Peewee (11-12) levels while officiating Tier I and II games in the 14-Under, 16-Under and 19-Under age groups earlier this month in the Boston suburb of Marlborough, Massachusetts.
“I definitely thought of how patient I’ve been. It’s such a long process,” she said. “It fuels my determination to better myself and move on up. I’ve really taken it seriously. I think there will be more opportunities, more hockey (to officiate). I’m all for it.”
Females comprise only 5 percent of referees in the United States — 1,447 out of 25,333 — registered with USA Hockey for the 2017-18 season. Along with being Erie’s lone female official, Vybiral said she encountered only two other female referees in Cleveland, Ohio, where she officiated until completing her criminology degree at John Carroll University last December.
Still, avenues exist for female officials to expand their resume. Vybiral said a USA Hockey officiating supervisor will recommend her to NCAA Division III leagues. Division I, which includes her hometown Mercyhurst University women’s program, could follow.
The National Women’s Hockey League, a four-team professional league based in the Northeast, recently completed its third season. Vybiral worked on a 62-person crew in Boston that included three female referees who officiated at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“I really think the sky is the limit for Jessica,” said Eric Komorek, a 13-year veteran and president of Erie Ice Referees Inc., which governs a group of 48 officials. “We have Jessica as one of our top officials in Erie. What Jessica has done is phenomenal. Frankly, I wish we had more (female officials). I hope the things she does inspires other female hockey players in Erie to pursue officiating.”
Vybiral is one of the guys among officials, which is how she wants it, and why she is motivated to earn assignments to national boys tournaments. She wasn’t chosen to officiate USA Hockey Nationals’ Tier II 14U games in Buffalo, New York, earlier this month, even though she also has experience officiating men’s games.
She played hockey with boys from ages 5 to 12, including two years in divisions that allowed body checking, before joining the Erie Lady Lions’ 19U team as a 13-year-old. So Vybiral is unfazed being part of a predominantly male profession.
“If she keeps progressing the way she’s been … I don’t see any limits for her,” said Mike Vybiral, who has witnessed his daughter’s passion and work ethic firsthand on the ice. He said being a female official may open doors for her, but it also means constantly proving herself on the ice. That’s fine with her. She wants to be judged solely on her merits.
“I can compete side by side with any official,” she said.