February 3, 2014

Birdville graduate follows her dream to Sochi

Laura Johnson is one of three U.S. referees who’ll officiate women’s hockey in the Winter Olympics.

At some point during one of the many idyllic stages of youth, Laura Johnson documented a vision she had for herself.

“My dream job is,” read her biography as a member of the Concordia College women’s hockey team, is to “go to the Olympics to officiate hockey.”

Much has happened since those carefree days of college life in Moorhead, Minn., but the 28-year-old’s dream will become reality when she leaves for the Land of the Czars this week.

The 2003 Birdville High School graduate’s destination will be the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, Russia, and the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

Johnson was selected at the end of 2013 to be one of three referees from the United States to officiate the women’s hockey competition.

The Olympics are the pinnacle of women’s hockey.

“I’m still pinching myself,” Johnson said last week from her home in Rochester, N.Y. “I knew I had a lot of hard work in front of me and I knew it was a slim chance. There are so many good officials in the U.S.

“It seemed impossible at times.”

Not any of the various controversies or terrorist threats surrounding the games will ruin the experience for Johnson.

This is literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience. USA Hockey officials only get one shot at the Olympics.

Johnson’s journey to the Olympics started in earnest in 2008, when she was certified to officiate international games.

A travel log has already been established after having worked World Championship games in China, Sweden, Canada and domestically in Burlington, Vt.

There, international officials are evaluated and ranked. It’s through that process that officials are selected for the games.

Possessing all the physical tools, such as being a strong skater, is essential, but officials also have to be students. Johnson said she has worked with six different rule books this year.

“I’m having to go back and repack,” Johnson said, heeding U.S. State Department recommendations not to wear anything outside the Olympic Village with the words “USA” or with the colors red, white and blue. “It’s in the back of my mind, but I’m confident that nothing will happen. But it’s good there’s an emphasis on it.”

While in Sochi, she’ll reside just outside the Olympic Village, but within walking distance from the hockey venue.

She said she plans to immerse herself in the Russian culture as much as she has in hockey over the last 10 years.

It’ll be different, to say the least, from her stops after college in St. Louis and Rochester, where she moved to “work better hockey.” Johnson works Division I and Division II games every weekend.

Johnson got her officiating start in Dallas-Fort Worth with the Metroplex Hockey Officials Association mentoring program when she was a senior at Birdville.

Though she had been around the game with her father and grandfather, Johnson didn’t start playing until she was 15 years old with the Lone Star Wolves.

Before she went off to college, she found she enjoyed officiating.

It soon became more than a way to pick up a few bucks in college.

“After my first year, I realized it was more than that,” said Johnson, who was advised to go play in college and exhaust all options there. “You’ll know when you’re done,” the advice continued.

A two-year career in college followed before Johnson returned to the part of the game that she found most intriguing.

“I really enjoyed officiating. I liked the challenge of being out there, being in tough situations where you have to make a call in a split second.”

The first call Johnson made when she learned of her Olympic selection was to Susan Halpern of MHOA, which still has a mentoring program for those 14 years and older. (Visit www.mhoa.org.)

“It was a very happy phone call,” Johnson said.

“The very first time I worked with her, in a matter of minutes I was amazed at her talent,” said Halpern, now general counsel of the organization, recalling Johnson’s third game as an official as an 18-year-old.

“She was instinctive, understood her role and position. She just got it. She’s that rare person.”

Johnson, too, plans to get involved with mentoring programs when the Olympics are over.

Men’s officials have options after the Olympics, through various levels, including professional.

This is the highest point for a women’s official, though Johnson said she’ll continue to work college games.

Evaluating and mentoring others are also in her plans.

“I want to help people find the path to where I am now,” Johnson said. “MHOA has such a great mentoring program. I want to help out in that form and help others find their passion for the game.”

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