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From Beijing to Pittsburgh

By Melissa Katz, 04/02/22, 11:15AM MDT


Olympic Officials Use Nationals As Time To Reflect

45 days ago Kelly Cooke and Kendall Hanley officiated the biggest game in women’s hockey, the Olympic gold medal game in Beijing. Today, they take the ice again, donning the officiating stripes, working the Chipotle-USA Hockey Girls Tier I National Championships.

“It’s an awesome opportunity to be back [at USA Hockey Nationals]. This is where I started, both as a player and as an official,” Cooke said. “To come back and see all these familiar faces and be able to give back to the game is something that we as officials really want to do. Having the opportunity to ref at the Olympics I feel like gives us a bigger appreciation for where we started and how far we’ve come as officials.”

In addition to Cooke and Hanley, USA Hockey officials Jackie Spresser and Sara Strong officiated the tournament in Beijing, with Strong on the bronze medal game. Both are now in Pittsburgh as well.

“Nationals is one of my favorite weeks of the year,” Strong said. “The hockey has been fantastic. The game I just had was really competitive and really skilled. It’s exciting to know that a lot of these girls could potentially be out there in four years or eight years representing the United States. It’s a lot of fun.”

For the four officials, it’s not always about the bright lights, but the love of the game. All four have been USA Hockey-trained officials for many years, earning the highest assignment by the International Ice Hockey Federation this past February.

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Officiating has become a way for them to stay involved in the game long after their playing days have ended.

“I love hockey and wanted to be a part of the game,” Spresser said about becoming an official. “I adore the friendships and the fellow officials that I’ve met over the years. For me it’s just about being able to do something that is fun that I love with a group of people that have grown to mean so much to me.”

“I just love to be involved in the game,” Strong added. “When I stopped playing after college, I wanted a way to stay involved. I picked up officiating and fell in love with it.”

Cooke and Spresser even remember attending nationals as players back in 2004. For them coming back as officials is a full-circle moment.

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“I played for Assabet Valley, so we came all the time,” Cooke said. “It’s awesome to see the growth of girls hockey from when I was a player until now has been amazing. The players are so much better than we were when I was young, so it’s awesome. Just to see the support and opportunities that they have now has been pretty neat to see.”

“2004 was my last time playing at Nationals, but it was just so fun,” Spresser said. “Nationals has always been my favorite tournament. It’s why I started officiating. I grew up playing and loved being here and when I finished, I missed the environment. To be able to come back and give back to the game in a way that still is meaningful in a way to me, is such a blessing.”

Even with the fond memories of being a player at Nationals, coming back as an official brings a different perspective, one that Cooke says has helped her grow a stronger appreciation for the experience she’s had.

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“We appreciate the opportunities we’ve had. USA Hockey has made it possible for all the officials to have these opportunities and be able to take what we’ve learned in Beijing and share them with the next generation,” Cooke said.  “I’m just happy to be back and working with younger and newer officials and letting them know how neat it is to work those tournaments and how far they can go with officiating.”

Similarly for Spresser and Strong, getting to officiate in Beijing and now being in Pittsburgh has been the experience of a lifetime and an opportunity to inspire and mentor the next generation.

“Stepping on the ice in Beijing, I just remember taking that moment in,” Spresser said. “Just knowing that I had made it.”

“The most rewarding part of being in Beijing was just thinking about all the people that helped me get there,” Strong concluded. “It’s so cool to see all the younger officials and be a mentor if I can and help them get to where they want to go.”

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