Female referee blazes trail from Duluth to Olympics
When organizers at the 2006 Winter Olympics hockey venue needed a referee for a pre-Olympic men's game, and were out of men candidates, they polled the women referees. Was anyone confident enough to take the assignment?...
When organizers at the 2006 Winter Olympics hockey venue needed a referee for a pre-Olympic men's game, and were out of men candidates, they polled the women referees. Was anyone confident enough to take the assignment?
Less than four years after starting her career in a striped shirt, Duluthian Leah Wrazidlo put up her hand.
"Well, if they're asking, absolutely I'll do it," Wrazidlo remembers of the prelude to a game Nov. 12, 2005, in Turin, Italy. "Although, at the time, I didn't realize the significance of what I was doing."
She became the first woman to referee a men's game at that international level as France met Italy to test the Olympic venue three months before the Winter Games.
Wrazidlo, 29, a former Duluth Denfeld and Minnesota Duluth player, graduates to a larger stage this week as a referee for women's games at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia. Hockey competition starts Saturday.
"Every aspect of being in Vancouver is going to be an adventure, especially the chance to see the Opening Ceremonies," said Wrazidlo, a resident of Jersey City, N.J. "But when it comes to refereeing a game, it will be business as usual. This is my job right now, and I don't plan to get caught in any hoopla just because this is the Olympics."
Wrazidlo caught the refereeing bug in 2001 when an uncle, Randy Hantz, suggested giving it a try. She'd played two seasons with UMD, with minimal playing time, and saw a move to officiating as a way to stay in the game, plus the perk of income. She went to an officials camp in Fond du Lac, Wis., sponsored by USA Hockey, made some contacts and was told refereeing opportunities were plentiful for women. She later got encouragement from Matt Leaf, USA Hockey's Director of the Officiating Education Program, and Steve Tatro, the Minnesota District Referee in Chief.
Youth hockey refereeing at $20 a game was a start. By 2002-03, Wrazidlo was working boys and girls high school games, and Division III college women's games.
"Leah impressed a lot of people early in her officiating by knowing the rule book and understanding the game," said Brett Klosowski of Duluth, president of the Northeast Youth Hockey Officials Association and a referee for Western Collegiate Hockey Association men's games. "She's very competent, very professional, and works at getting better."
Klosowski, 43, who has officiated Division I college games since 1995, partnered with Wrazidlo to work youth and high school games. He said he's impressed, but not surprised by her rise in the ranks in nine years.
Wrazidlo worked as a WCHA linesman for three years and had that assignment in the 2004 NCAA women's Frozen Four in Providence, R.I. She also officiated the last three Women's World Championships in Finland, China and Canada. She currently referees North American Hockey League men's games and Eastern College Athletic Conference women's games.
"Every time I show up for an assignment it's a new experience and a chance to succeed," says Wrazidlo, who earned a education degree at UMD. "A lot of what's happened has been the right time and the right place for me, and rising to the challenge and improving."
Wrazidlo is the only American woman among six referees at the 2010 Winter Olympics, joining those from Canada, Germany, Norway, Finland and Great Britain. Among nine linesmen is former Duluth resident Kelli Rolstad of Champlin, Minn.
After earning an MBA degree from St. Paul's Bethel University last September, Wrazidlo says she's seeking a job in the business world, after scaling the heights as a hockey referee.